Right on plan
NME discusses the essentials of cutting-edge data centre design with the region’s leading data centre specialists
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The Middle East IT infrastructure domain has reached a natural state of evolution that has not been seen before, with many a company considering the expansion of their current data centre facilities.
It could also be said that the data centre market has reached a mini-zenith or plateau where all of the major enterprises in the region, at least in the more prominent countries, have had data centre installations in place for some years now and are looking at next-generation offerings such as cloud computing and virtualisation to maximise efficiency and hopefully save some dollars along the way.
Prior to the financial crisis the region saw such strong growth that a great deal of the businesses occupying the SMB sector were nipping at the heels of the low-end enterprise market and as such were beginning to consider the need to upgrade their data centre rooms.
The growth may have dissipated to a large extent, but this sector has endured somewhat and there is still the same interest in data centre design at the SMB level and certainly at the enterprise level.
At the same time, and stimulated by this maturation, a number of data centre consultants have started to set up shop in the Middle East and have been busy helping those companies looking to expand their data centres, or indeed carry out first builds, to ensure that they get the best solution and positive ROI.
However, data centre consultation in the Middle East is still relatively in its infancy and a lot of the firms that offer the service have only been operating and based in the region for a few years.
“We set up a business in the Middle East about 18 months ago, so we are newer to this market, but we are trying to replicate the same success out here that we have had in the UK and so far it is going very well,” said Duncan Adamson, general manager for the Middle East at IT consultancy and services firm Intergence Systems.
Despite being newcomers, Adamson is adamant that there has been a great demand for Intergence’s services when it comes to the designing and overseeing the creation of data centre facilities.
It has to be said though, that there are also end-users in the region that have elected not to employ the services of a consultant when it comes to data centre design and have instead opted to do it in–house.
e-Hosting Datafort (eDHF), which offers a variety of data centre advisory services, suggests that there is a propensity for the SMB sector to shun consultancy services, a potentially risky approach.
“Yes, definitely smaller companies tend to do it directly on their own,” explained Herbert Radlinger, business manager, data centre services at eHDF. “It’s dangerous, I believe at the end [of the project] they will not get the perfect solution that they are looking for. I don’t see that it is possible to get the best solution going directly with the contractor. The contractor will look at their own portfolio first. I have been in this business quite a long time now and this is not only my opinion, it’s also my experience,” emphasised Radlinger.
This is perhaps one of the major cases in favour of enlisting the services of a consultant. Every consultant in the market will loudly espouse the value of having an impartial third party involved in your project, one with the expertise and understanding to ensure that product evangelisers do not take over the project.
“Let me put the case for independent consultancy — at a very broad, blunt level any systems integrator purporting to have a services arm will be bound by the product pull-through targets they have in terms of vendor obligations,” asserted Intergence’s Adamson. “That is not a controversial statement, it is just a fact of life.”
It must also be pointed out that consultants such as Intergence will provide vendor evaluation services as part of their work.
One of the reason some end-users have yet to see the benefits of employing a consultant is perhaps due to the recent nature of the service’s arrival in the area.
Some end-users are also very confident of the skills that they have built up within their own IT teams and feel that designing their data centre room on their own will save them a great deal of money in the long run. The Dubai government department, the RTA, is one such organisation.
“In my experience what we have seen is that the consultants that we have used before, were kind-of vendor biased, so we didn’t want that and we want our data centre set up to be unbiased and not vendor-based,” said Jaiwanth Kumar, senior project manager, IT infrastructure section, IT department at the RTA.
Kumar explained that after the RTA’s first data centre installation in 2007, for which the organisation did call upon the services of a consultant, the department decided to invest in training and certifying Kumar to carry out future data centre design work.
“Now for the third data centre, which will be a big one for RTA, we will not need separate consultancy services because we think we have the internal knowledge-base now to build a good data centre,” continued Kumar.
He describes the second data centre implementation that the RTA undertook: “We wanted to show an ROI, not just on the data centre, but also on not using consultancy, so we had to work out the risks and potential benefits. We showed we have the knowledge built up and we really saw a big saving in terms of technology cost and we could plough that money back into new technologies and green initiatives.”
One aspect to consultancy that has been popular in the Middle East is making use of preferred vendors and their design services. Most if not all of the vendors in the data centre space will be happy to offer some form of interaction with the end-user in this area.
“The larger green field data centres such as 1000m² or above, tend to employ the majority of consultancy disciplines to deploy services from MEP, Security, ELV and IT etcetera,” said Wes Tweedley, regional services director at CommScope Global services.
“A more modern trend being adopted is to use the professional services arm of the IT and telecomms vendors to sharpen the design to a more finite level within the data centre.
“Interestingly for smaller data centres, we often see the in-house IT team taking responsibility for the design. The handling of this part of the design mainly ends up with the vendor’s design team or is referred to the preferred business partner installer for completion,” he added.
So what sort of services can an end-user expect for assessing their networking needs and designing server facilities to meet them? The list, to be honest, is endless, as is the list of considerations that have to be taken into account to ensure that your data centre is stable, fault tolerant, flexible, efficient, highly available, secure and presents a tangible return on investment.
Sun Microsystems, an industry stalwart in the field of enterprise architecture, presents a long list of work it can carry out under the banner of data centre strategy, design and build.
“Consultants help with consolidating, retrofitting or building a new datacenter, based on the client’s specific requirements, that addresses all components of their IT ecosystem — real estate, facilities, hardware, software, network and security,” said Andy Clark, MENA enterprise systems specialist at Sun Microsystems.
He goes on to explain that the list of data centre planning services includes location recommendations, business continuity plans and presenting a financial assessment comparing the cost and benefit of different approaches.
The list of design services encapsulates developing the most advantageous tier level for customer applications, optimising existing data centre facilities and employing modular design concepts to allow for future reduction or increasing in size of the data centre.
In addition to that, vendors such as Sun will also cover topics such as consolidation and virtualisation, environmental services, identity management, service orientated architecture, enterprise applications services and cloud computing, as part of of its data centre consultation.
Although it is likely that everyone, except the very large enterprises, will make use of the whole host of the services on offer it gives a very good indication of what data centre consultancy can potentially entail, and indeed what to look out for.
There are certainly a whole host of challenges that face the data centre designer at the drawing board stage, challenges that require a skilled and experienced consultant or IT technician.
“Overall the complexity of designing and building data centres has also increased with customers expecting service providers to provide and commit to detailed service level agreements for example,” said Stuart Mathieson, senior manager of solutions architecture, MENA at Nortel. “Ultimately the success or failure of an organisation’s data centre comes down to the sum of all the parts. Understanding this level of detail and managing complexity while at the same time using a consultancy team that is prepared to get its hands dirty is essential.”
One of the most obvious challenges to data centre planning that has to be factored in is brought about by environmental factors that are somewhat unique to the region.
“Cooling, in particular, is one issue, as summer temperatures can soar to around 50 degrees Celsius and any breakdown of the data centre cooling plant can cause catastrophic systems failures much sooner than it would in cooler climates,” explains Sun’s Clark. “Another issue is the quality of air filtration. Due to the sand and dust storms inherent to the region, if a data centre is not properly sealed and the cooled air is not from a clean supply, any build-up of dust and sand can cause equipment issues, causing unplanned downtime.”
The importance of proper cooling provisions in a data centre design cannot be overlooked and it is clear that it is one challenge that might certainly call for the dedicated service and experience of a consultant. It is a view shared by Extreme Networks and the firm’s Middle East and Africa regional director, Aziz Ala’ali.
“The power densities being created are now such that the task of carrying the heat away in the room is more akin to an electronics cooling problem than a room cooling or ventilation application. Design engineers for data centres in the Middle East now need a way of predicting the effect of changes in heat load and distribution and how alternative cooling solutions will perform,” said Ala’ali.
Another significant hurdle that has to be overcome by the data centre engineer in the Middle East is space, and more to the point, the sufficient and appropriate use of space available and allowing for future demands on space.
Space to house a significant data centre is often not as available as one might think in a region that has plenty of unoccupied land masses. Well this is very likely the case for the small or medium businesses that have, as already explained, grown at a rapid pace over the past couple of years.
In some cases, a data centre design consultant might well table the possibility of having a proportion, if not all, of an IT infrastructure hosted or managed by a service provider. This is a suggestion that is occasionally put to customers of firms such as eHosting Datafort.
“We show the customer that there’s always two options,” claims eHDF’s Radlinger. “We also see if the better solution might not be to build their own, but to rent from us, and have it managed. There are different levels and it might not be just that they have a facility, they can also have additional IT services.”
This is a solution that has potential to experience serious growth as firms realise that, financial crisis or not, they still have to make sure that their IT systems are up to the task of driving their businesses and that one way to do this is by hosting some, if not most, applications with a third party. It is however, says Radlinger, something that will only be considered if it is relevant for the needs of the particular end-user.
“I would say it is a case-to-case option, we cannot say that this customer will have to build and this one host. Definitely it is related to the size of the customer and that is very important because, for a small and medium sized company, an investment in a data centre when they need a higher availability is a problem,” he said.
When it comes to data centre designs, the consideration most dominating many IT manager’s thought patterns right now is likely to be how much the whole thing is going to cost, and how they are going to justify it to the Board.
The huge cost of a whole implementation may well put many of them off from enlisting a consultant’s involvement. Consultants have however, been working to circumvent cost-concerns and prove their worth.
As part of a strategy to show clients the potential cost savings and efficiencies that can be gained by migrating to a virtualised environment, and to ensure that the IT administrator has some ammunition when broaching the subject with their CFO, Intergence has devised a small assessment package at a clearly defined price tag, as opposed to an open-ended assessment.
“We have designed a framework that allows a customer to undertake a due diligence phase,” explained Intergence’s Adamson. “It is a modular framework that allows the customer to take a due diligence phase allowing them to accurately forecast the likely ROI from virtualisation. It isn’t the case for relying on an online [assessment] tool that will provide you with a load of intangibles and tell you that you can save US$800,000 in five months. That might well be the case, but of course it is a generic tool.”
In addition to this the firm has started to offer users that register on its website a free half-day workshop around virtualisation of network or data centre, a service that Adamson claims has been well-received in the market.
Creating a modern data centre is a colossal undertaking and one that should never be embarked on lightly, or in a short-sighted manner. There are increasing demands made of the data centre and the network it serves as the region continues to mature.
As the considerations that go into designing a data centre and potential pitfalls are numerous, it is all the more reason that during the planning stage of a project, IT managers are electing to seek outside assistance to ensure that they get the most value for their investment.
There are, as we have also seen, end-users that have elected to go it alone, after they are very sure that they have the appropriate resources and knowledge needed within the organisation.
Either way, data centre design is taking on an indisputable role in making sure the technological nerve cells of today’s organisations are sophisticated enough to meet the ever-changing needs of the end-user. When it comes to data centre design, it really is the case that failure to plan, is planning to fail.