IT execs using 'Big Three' to keep data center solid

As more demand has been put on the data center to meet the needs of its internal customers, the rules of data center operation have changed. Today, data center managers are re-examining business processes and turning to utility computing, outsourcing and flexible platforms in order to keep a handle on their IT infrastructure's integrity.

CHICAGO -- The data center is on the cusp of major change, as managers struggle to meet the needs of a new IT landscape.

The increased pressure to manage the data center under almost volatile conditions has given rise to a new way of doing business.

Gone are the days when a data center manager operated on his own -- long gone, said Gartner Inc. analyst Carl Claunch. Claunch spoke to about 350 high-level IT professionals, including data center managers, network administrators, engineers and CIOs, at TechTarget's 2003 Data Center Futures conference Wednesday.

Now, as IT partners with customers and collaborates with internal business units, such as sales and marketing, there is an entirely new set of challenges brought to the table. As a result, the data center manager will have to turn to a new set of business processes, must consider options such as utility computing, on-demand computing and outsourcing and even switch platforms as application requirements demand.

"You're going to have to manage big, multiple enterprise systems, partly in your shops, partly in your partner's or customer's shops, and that brings a whole lot of changes in how you manage," Claunch said.

"Inevitably, there will be conflicting priorities. There is no place where the buck stops. No common management. You will have to learn how to manage these priorities."

Indeed, managers here say they're faced with the challenge of trying to balance the needs of IT and the needs of their internal business units.

"One of the biggest challenges I face is how to balance all the different requests and still maintain the integrity of the systems," said Larry Kallembach, CIO at MB Financial, in Chicago. Kallembach said that individual business units requesting specific apps is on the rise within his organization, and he struggles to make sure that meeting those demands doesn't interfere with his other critical priorities, such as disaster recovery and security -- but it's not easy.

Claunch said managers are going to have to take the high road and learn to work with the system; that means integrating processes and coordinating development with partners and business units.

"Figure out your mechanisms," he said.

Todd Luciotti, a senior networking engineer for Northwestern Human Services, in Lafayette, Penn., is working on it, but he said that pulling together an operations and procedure policy is one of his department's biggest challenges. Luciotti said that getting things on paper hasn't been easy. The process can be arduous, but he knows that, ultimately, it will be worth it. "We want to make sure everything is laid out for our customers," Luciotti said. "We also want to get our business units to understand how we operate."

In addition to processes, data center managers will have to turn to some up-and-coming infrastructure strategies, such as utility computing, in order to meet the ever-changing demands and needs of their various customers.

Big name players such as IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp. all have their versions of utility computing -- call it grid computing, on-demand computing, autonomic computing or adaptive management -- and it's all getting plenty of play among IT ranks as a way to cut expenditures by meeting fluctuating demands efficiently. Utility computing and its counterparts let data centers pay for only what they use, allowing for flexibility and scalability in capacity.

Utility computing won't replace the data center, said Claunch, but managers should expect more pressure from internal and external customers to seek out utility computing as a way to increase efficiency and cut costs.

Data center managers are also going to have to give consideration to integrating new platforms, as business units request specific applications.

In essence, it's all about the applications. "The apps determine the platform, and more and more decisions [regarding the applications] are being made by the business units," he said.

There's little loyalty to platform anymore, said Claunch, and choice of platform will be made by the applications that it supports. In effect, the platform with the most apps wins.

While the data center is still dominated by the mainframe and high-end servers such as IBM's AS/400 and iSeries, a growing number of shops are moving to Microsoft Windows -- "as Windows becomes more proficient in the data center," said Claunch. Platforms running Linux, including IBM's mainframe, the z/Series, are on the upswing.

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