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Data centres: What businesses need to know

Data centres: What businesses need to know

Data centres, in the sense of a centralised space where business information is stored, have always been important, but as we move towards an increasingly digital economy, and indeed, way of life, they have taken on even greater significance. The importance of data centres to our everyday actions can be glimpsed simply by taking a look at the amount of energy that they consume. According to the National Resource Defense Council, the Internet, which relies on data centre infrastructure for its utility, represents 1.1 to 1.5 per cent of all global electricity use. With the associated annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to between 70 and 90 large coal-fired power plants.

For businesses, however, environmental concerns are just one aspect of data centre usage. Primarily, they must ensure that their data centre can deliver the level of service that their customers, clients and employees expect. With the growth of Internet technologies and cloud computing, the importance of managing your data centre correctly has never been so high. For many firms, it could ultimately be the difference between success and failure.

How data centres work

Essentially, a data centre is a dedicated space where companies store their IT infrastructure. Far from simply storing digital documents and information, data centres often contain the very foundations of your company’s IT output, from individual applications to entire operating systems. Depending on the business, a data centre could be based locally as a single hardware rack, or take up several million square feet.

The physical appearance of a data centre will vary slightly based on the specific hardware being used, but generally consists of a series of servers connected together. Data centre managers will be tasked with ensuring the security and reliability of these servers. Increasingly, businesses access their data centre over wireless communications, particularly with the growth of cloud computing and more firms choosing to use off-premise data centres.

Do it yourself, managed hosting or colocation

For many businesses, the first decision to make when choosing a data centre is whether to manage it themselves or outsource it to a third-party supplier. There are many reasons why an organisation may choose to manage their own data centre, with freedom being high on the list. Running your own data centre means that you will have complete control over the hardware and software being implemented, as well as any security protocols. Of course, this independence comes with added responsibility and may only be plausible for organisations that possess sufficient time and resources, or those with a small IT output.

Once businesses have decided to manage their own data centres, they may then want to consider colocation as a potential option. With colocation, businesses still own and maintain all their data centre hardware and software, but it is located in a facility that is owned by a third party. Businesses will purchase their own servers and network technology, for example, and then install it in the colocation provider’s data centre. This is often viewed as a best-of-both-worlds approach, combining independence with cost and scalability benefits. In exchange for a monthly fee, the colocation provider will cover energy costs and physical security, while also allowing businesses to purchase more space if and when necessary. However, because the data centre hardware remains under the ownership of the business, they can configure as they see fit.

However, this may not suit every business, particularly as organisations using colocation services will still be required to upgrade and maintain their own hardware. For firms that want to take full advantage of outsourcing, managed hosting is often preferred. Managed hosting is when a business outsources their IT infrastructure to a third party. Because a third-party will be supplying your IT services, some businesses may be worried about restrictions on the type of content they can host in the data centre and security concerns may also arise. However, there is still some freedom when it comes to managed hosting. Businesses can choose how much of their IT infrastructure to host in an external data centre, for example. They could reserve it just for disaster recovery or have their everyday applications and data hosted externally – the decision is up to each individual business.

Important data centre considerations

Whichever approach businesses take to their data centre, however, there are a number of important considerations that should always be taken into account.

  • Location – If you are managing your own data centre, you’re likely to need one that can be easily accessed. Regular maintenance is important and being able to visit your data centre easily in the event of disruption is vital. Conversely, if you are using a third-party vendor, the location of their data centres are crucial to ensuring that you are meeting all data compliance regulations.
  • Security – Data centre security is a combination of both physical security (ensuring that only authorised personnel can access your hardware) and more technical solutions, such as encryption, firewalls, etc. Both approaches must be robust if you are to avoid costly data breaches.
  • Scalability – Data centres should not only be suitable for your business at its present size, but must be able to accommodate growth. When outsourcing, scalability is usually straightforward, but organisations should still ensure that their data centre contract allows for flexibility.
  • Reliability – Your data centre may be the key to your entire IT infrastructure, so its reliability is vital. Businesses must devote enough time and resources to data centre management, or alternatively, choose a supplier with an adequate service level agreement (SLA). Many data centre operators now spread resources across multiple facilities to ensure that even if an entire data centre is inoperable, businesses can remain online.

For modern businesses, the data centre is no longer an afterthought. Managing your data centre effectively, or choosing the right host provider, can deliver fantastic business results, but when done poorly, it can cripple the productivity of your employees and bring your operations to a standstill. What’s more, with the amount of data being produced, stored and analysed increasing all the time and cloud computing continuing to grow in popularity, the data centre will surely only grow in prominence in the years to come.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/alphaspirit

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