How COVID-19 could reshape the data centre

In mid-March, the gradual shift toward cloud-based environments morphed into a frenzied panic almost overnight. Is all of this the beginning of the end for traditional data centres?

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From the data centre to the cloud

Will the enterprise data centre be another casualty of coronavirus?

Ruminating on the demise of the corporate data centre is nothing new. Gartner’s David Cappuccio penned his provocatively titled blog post “The data centre is dead” almost two years ago.

In reality, the shift from the traditional enterprise data centre to an increasingly cloud-based environment has been more of a steady, measured migration over the past decade. In March of this year, however, that gradual shift morphed into a frenzied panic almost overnight, when a pandemic swept across this planet with the speed and scope of … well, a global pandemic.

Now, in light of the continuing COVID-19 crisis, Gartner is weighing in on the future of data centres yet again. It predicts budgets for data centre systems will fall by 9.7 per cent this year, potentially suffering what it calls one of the “biggest drops in (IT) spending” during 2020.

Cloud, on the other hand, will get a huge boost this year, according to Gartner’s estimation.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spur remote working, sub segments such as public cloud services will be a bright spot in the forecast, growing 19 per cent in 2020. Cloud-based telephony and messaging and cloud-based conferencing will also see high levels of spending growing 8.9 per cent and 24.3 per cent respectively,” Gartner predicts in a recent research note.

451 Research has issued a similarly sunny forecast for cloud services during the year ahead. “COVID-19 might be the catalyst for enterprises to look beyond their own four walls, and into public, hybrid and multi-cloud options as they face the reality that an event like this may happen again,” 451 researchers wrote in their own recent take on IT trends for the rest of 2020.

Physical distancing in the data centre

Physical distancing in the data centre during COVID-19

Andres Rodriquez is firmly in the camp that believes coronavirus will deliver the final blow to enterprise data centres. Okay, so he is the CTO of a cloud-based file sharing and storage platform called Nasuni. Still, he raised a valid point in an interview with SDX Central: physical distancing has severely hindered the ability of IT staff to perform any data centre management and maintenance that can’t be done remotely.

“The (data centre) infrastructure is intact but physically inaccessible because everyone is isolating themselves at home,” Rodriquez said. “I think what that taught us is that the physical network is a serious liability. IT teams can’t access their own data centres, yet they still have to provide services to thousands of people around the world.”

That may sound a tad melodramatic, but an Uptime Institute survey of 200 data centres around the world suggests they are indeed struggling with keeping things running while keeping staff physically distanced.

“Most operators have deferred some scheduled maintenance, which in spite of monitoring and close management, will likely lead to an increased risk of more failures,” the Institute warned in its summary of the survey findings. “In addition, many if not most sites are now operating with a reduced level of on-site staff, with many engineers on call, rather than on site.”

“As the impact of the virus continues, data centre operators could come under more strain,” the Institute stated. “Research does show that staff shortage and tiredness can lead to more incidents and outages, and sustained staff shortages—due to illness, separation of shifts and self-isolation—are widespread across the sector.”

In that same survey, data centre managers cited “reduced level of IT infrastructure operations staff” as the top risk posed by COVID-19 to their organization’s critical IT infrastructure operations.

Is all of this the beginning of the end for traditional data centres?

COVID and critical infrastructure

Although COVID-19 could convince more businesses and organizations to ditch on-prem infrastructure for the cloud, those in highly regulated industries may not have that option.

Keep in mind that demand for virtual service delivery during the pandemic has skyrocketed the most in sectors that face strict regulations on data security, privacy and sovereignty, like healthcare, education and other public-facing government services. Banking, insurance and other financial services also fall under the purview of similar data regulations.

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Unless the pandemic results in some sweeping regulatory changes governing data handling and storage, private enterprises operating within those regulated ecosystems will still face restrictions on completely moving customer data to the cloud.

Instead of simply moving everything to the cloud, some enterprises may opt for a less drastic approach. For example, Uptime Institute recommends moving away from hardware toward virtual infrastructure to keep data centre staff off-site whenever possible.

“A key goal during a pandemic is to limit site traffic. Data centres should use remote monitoring, remote management and remote automation software/systems where possible, and especially when they are operating with (a) smaller number of on-site staff and/or with reduced staff shifts,” the Institute advises in a special report on COVID-19 and critical IT infrastructure.

“In a worst-case scenario, remote monitoring and automation software/systems and/or services can make it much easier to operate a facility remotely, with no staff on-site,” Uptime Institute concludes.

For now, on-premise data centres are still very much with us. Due to COVID-19, the way they look and operate may have changed forever.

Images: Eoneren/iStock; mediaphotos/iStock

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