Data centers have evolved significantly in recent decades, but from the helter-skelter early 80s floor plans to today’s carefully planned, interoperable and complicated IT networks one thing remains constant. The physical layer remains the core infrastructure “plumbing” on which a data center is built. While the recent economic slowdown caused some firms to delay data center building and expansion plans, those moving forward with construction should consider this fundamental and basic need during the data center boom’s second coming.

Surveys from organizations such as Campos Research, indicated that as many as 50 percent of respondents plan to either expand or build entirely new data centers over the next two years, but many experts warn that these companies will not solve their underlying problems by recreating the same problems into a newer, larger data center.1 The issue of data center capacity cuts across industries, as more organizations reach the limits of physical network infrastructures. The problem is further exacerbated by planned and unplanned moves, additions and changes of cables and equipment.

When the unwieldy “rat’s nest” of optical and copper cables becomes too overwhelming, most companies choose to either gut their operation or build a larger version of a similar data center. In reality, neither of these choices solves the underlying problem. A hasty or short-term, financially driven decision overlooks the root issue at the physical layer (layer 1). Without designing the proper physical layer network infrastructure, it is only a matter of time before the scenario repeats itself. Fortunately, there is a solution to break free from the cycle.

Virtualization, an industry buzzword for decades, offers companies a tool to improve network availability, manageability and performance - not just in the usual places some might think. While upper-layer virtualization has grabbed headlines in recent years, implementing a virtualized physical network infrastructure layer is now mandatory for groups that truly seek the highest level of end-to-end efficiency, performance and reliability. Virtualization of applications, servers, storage, etc., has become a regular step in IT planning, but it would be unwise to ignore the physical network that is the lifeblood of the IT infrastructure. Only by creating a virtualized physical network infrastructure layer will the network be fully optimized and designed for long-term sustainability.

Space constraints, power inefficiencies and disaster recovery regulations comprise the main reasons for this building boom, according to recent surveys.2 Companies are also experiencing the unrelenting demands on data processing and information sharing, which are continuously driven by electronic commerce and globalization. Industry experts believe that better planning and attention to the virtualization of the physical infrastructure layer can extend the lifecycle of data centers and mitigate these fears.3 Smart, integrated planning can help to reduce power, cooling and space needs while improving network automation, asset management, time to market, system testing and disaster recovery.

Many companies have failed to account for the limits of their physical network connectivity and overlooked the infrastructure required to keep equipment running efficiently. Unstructured optical and copper cabling is unreliable, and connector and wiring failures drive up operating costs by physically limiting the ability to scale and consolidate. Unfortunately, most people do not realize that a majority of network downtime is due to cabling problems. Lift a floor tile or look at overhead cabling in nearly any data center to see first hand how the best laid wiring plans can devolve into a spaghetti snare. A jumbled mess places the network at severe risk for damage from stress and wear. Such low-tech physical layer setups significantly increase the man-hours required to execute standard moves, adds and changes - driving up the operational costs of networks and cable management. The latest physical layer virtualization and software solutions give companies the flexibility to wire once and virtually handle subsequent transactions at any time and from anywhere.

Tangled cables, plugs and wiring can limit the ability to scale and consolidate - and most are not monitored for health and usage. Today’s top physical layer foundations provide IT experts with the tools to monitor, test and reconfigure physical infrastructure from their desktop. Systems that can quickly isolate and resolve path or circuit problems also lower operational costs by reducing downtime and eliminating guess-and-check diagnosis methods. Furthermore, a virtualized physical network infrastructure layer can lower operational costs and reduce capital expenditures by more efficiently utilizing current resources.

Virtualizing the infrastructure layer also improves network security. Human error can easily lead to a security breach, and recent statistics indicate that over 80 percent of data theft and security breach incidents occur from within, not outside, the company network. That includes physical-layer breaches.4 It may seem obvious, but unless organizations know where every cable begins and ends, they run the risk of transferring highly confidential data outside the data center’s firewall. A virtualized physical network infrastructure layer allows you to place sensitive network hardware under lock and key and restricted virtual access, without hampering standard operations. Newer systems can also be configured to alert top-level administrators about unauthorized or potentially damaging activities.

By virtualizing the physical network layer, data centers achieve end-to-end virtualization that will ultimately pave the way for next generation networks, which helps to reduce capital equipment costs, provide an agile and real-time infrastructure, and support green initiatives. As this wave of data center construction continues, companies must consider integrating a virtualized physical layer as part of the groundwork for a longer data center lifecycle, otherwise they will never fully achieve the benefits from their investments.

Recent Gartner data shows that the information technology industry already accounts for two percent of all CO2 emissions, the global environmental impacts of which are staggering considering the rapid projected growth.5 This trend also adds up to ballooning bills for many IT departments and mounting internal and external pressure to adopt greener practices. Fortunately, a virtualized physical network infrastructure can help alleviate core energy drains and reshape data centers to become more eco-friendly. Aside from facilitating smart growth, data centers built on a virtualized physical network infrastructure layer are able to do “more” with “less,” trimming capital acquisition costs and eliminating the need to expand the data center’s physical footprint. The energy savings of a smaller floor plan with fewer operating pieces are intuitive.

Cost and ROI are always issues that are top-of-mind with executives, and one thing to consider is that network infrastructure and data center expansion involves more than just the direct costs of new buildings and equipment. Time to deployment, time to market, cost of downtime, migration time, retesting and the impact on worker productivity need to be accounted for. It is generally accepted that the price of power and real estate is going to continue to increase, so the longer a data center can be efficiently operated, the greater ROI companies will see.

An examination of Google’s data center strategy is illuminating. The Internet search giant invested more than $2 billion last year on data center construction and equipment. When evaluating potential data center locations, Google reportedly looks at proximity to rivers or lakes for cooling, state tax incentives, renewable energy resources and large land sites for security among other things - all of which are wise considerations. When the discussion turns to the inside of the data center, however, we see a familiar fight with power and cooling. Google’s facilities are rumored to hold tens of thousands of smaller processors and disks together with Velcro tape in order to facilitate easy swapping of components. It is interesting to note that manual swaps and changes in the physical assets are still accepted as “a necessary evil” in the operation.6

While Google is clearly an example at one end of the spectrum in terms of data center size, their facility planning steps are very similar to those of even midsized businesses. With a virtualized physical infrastructure layer though, Google’s data center cooling needs could be reduced, and swapping of components would be made exponentially faster through a computer terminal rather than on the floor. It might appear that Google has thought of everything for this new build, but the physical layer is one area it seems their expert eyes have missed so far.

Despite potential economic challenges, the pressure for expansion and the need to efficiently and securely handle more data will continue to increase. Over the last decade, most IT experts focused on acquiring and deploying innovative equipment and applications. Today’s executives and network administrators are more focused on implementing proven solutions that save money, increase efficiency and agility and extend the life of the infrastructure. Every C-level executive and network operations professional should understand how significantly the physical layer of their network impacts their overall operations and how smart planning and implementation of a virtualized network infrastructure can benefit them through multiple generations of technology investments.

Before any data center build or expansion, consider if your physical layer is:

  • Poorly implemented?
  • Lacking in security?
  • Aging?
  • Entangled?
  • Inefficient?
  • Inflexible?
  • Vulnerable?

If “yes” is the answer to any of these questions, data center performance may be limited by the physical layer - now and in the future. By virtualizing the physical infrastructure layer - in conjunction with upper layers - companies can achieve higher levels of data center performance while exacting the maximum return on their investment - with the added benefit of hardware, software and personnel utilized more effectively. Ultimately, virtualizing the physical infrastructure layer is the final step to providing complete end-to-end data center virtualization.

References:

1. Matt Stansberry. “Data Center Construction is Booming."   SearchDataCenter.com, November 19, 2007.

2. “Gartner Says 50 Percent of Data Centers Will Have Insufficient Power and Cooling Capacity by 2008.” Gartner, Inc., November 29, 2006.

3. Robert Richardson. “2007 CSI Computer Crime and Security Survey.” Computer Security Institute, 2007.

4. Robert Richardson.

5. “Gartner Estimates ICT Industry Accounts for 2 Percent of Global CO2 Emissions.” Gartner, Inc., April 26, 2007.

6. John Markoff and Saul Hansell. “Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks More Power.” The New York Times, June 14, 2006.

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