Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Datacenters Dead, Film At 11

Via Slashdot we find Sun's CEO predicting the downfall of the datacenter:

Now I understand that IT infrastructure has to be put somewhere. But the whole concept of a datacenter is a bit of an anachronism. We certainly don't put power generators in precious city center real estate, or put them on pristine raised flooring with luxuriant environmentals, or surround them with glass and dramatic lighting to host tours for customers. (But now you know why we put 5 foot logos on the sides of our machines.)

Where do we put power generators? In the engine room. In the basement. Or on the roof. And we don't host tours (at least in the developed world).

Wrong, just plain wrong. I feel like I could be accused of hubris, taking on the CEO of Sun Microsystems, but jeeze, he's so obviously wrong on this I've got to try. Yeah, generators may go in the engine room or the basement, but then again computers aren't exactly like generators, are they? If a generator is providing service to a building you generally have to put it in/near the building (don't you?). Whereas a computer that provides support to a bevy of office works can be miles away, thanks in part to that lovely Internet which you guys at Sun helped become so successful. If you could put all the generators for a company in one place and have them serviced by the same staff, wouldn't you take advantage of the economies of scale that would provide?

The original intent of the datacenter was to accommodate not computer equipment, but the people who managed it. Operators who needed to mount tapes, sweep chad, feed cards, and physically intervene when things went wrong. Swap a failed board or disk drive, or reboot a system.

Bull-pucky... that may have been the rationale behind data centers in the dim mists of computing antiquity, but it sure isn't the reason why they exist today. Ever heard of a "lights out" data center? You know, one where there aren't any people? Data centers exist today to provide a controlled, cost-effective environment for computing equipment. If you put all your eggs in one basket (while, of course, maintaining a DR basket somewhere else) then you can amortize your fixed costs (security, infrastructure, environmental controls, etc.) over a larger number of servers. Do you really think its more cost effective for businesses to go back to the days when every department kept its servers in a closet somewhere?

Therein lies an interesting quandary - at least from our internal analysis, the availability of IT infrastructure is inversely correlated to foot traffic. The more people allowed in a datacenter, the more likely they are to kick a cord out of the wall, break something trying to fix it, or just bump into things trying to add value.

Minimizing floor traffic is an excellent idea, see my point above about "lights out" data centers. But even if you minimize floor traffic you still have to put the servers somewhere, and putting them together in one place is a better idea then having them dispersed all over Hell's half acre from both an economic and a management standpoint.

As the best systems administrators will tell you, the most reliable services are built from infrastructure allowed to fail in place, with resilient systems architecture taking the place of hordes of eager datacenter operators. Instead of sweeping chad, they do periodic sweeps of dead components - or simply let them occupy space until the next facility is brought on-line. (Known as "failing over a datacenter.")

Maybe you do this at Sun, or did in your heyday when you were flush with cash. Let me let you in on a little secret: very few organizations have the free cash to build fully "fail in place" data centers. Even fewer have the resources to just let equipment die and sit around without being repaired. And this notion that organizations migrate from DC to DC as a matter of regular maintenance practice is just fantasy. They migrate when they loose their lease, or when they outgrow the DC, or when they need to relocate for risk reasons. DC moves are exceptional occurrences; they're not factored into everyday server maintenance. Trust me on this one, DC work is what I do for a living. When was the last time you were in a DC, Johnny boy? This whole stupid argument is premised on the notion that DCs exist for the convenience of maintenance staff, and idea which is just demonstrably false. DCs don't exist for the staff, they exist because corporations with lots of computers need someplace safe and sound to stick them. Staff convenience is an afterthought, at best.

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