data center

The rapidly shrinking government data center

The government data center is shrinking.

Of all the technologies that government uses, data centers will be among the fastest to evolve in the new year. In fact, data centers will look nothing like they did even a few years ago. 

Although it's not the direct goal of these changes, each one will tend to shrink the data center, starting with technology that will shave off a few inches all the way to some that may cause the data center to almost disappear altogether. 

Stripping down, warming up

The biggest energy drain for most data centers beyond powering the computers themselves  is cooling them.  A lot of effort recently has gone into finding more efficient ways to cool down hot computers, since heat slows down processing and can ultimately lead to hardware failure. There’s been a big move to water cooling, even in traditional environments. 

In the government arena, the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory has built what could be the most efficient – and coolest – data center in the world. Its Golden, Colo., Energy Systems Integration Facility, which will start its first full year of operations in 2014, is designed for researching how to best use renewable energy. 

Every bit of energy at the facility is being re-used in some way. For example, it is using hot water from the cooling process to heat the facility instead of just bleeding it off as a waste product inside big cooling towers. The ESIF also directs hot water under its sidewalks, melting snow and ice away during the Colorado winters.

Computers at the facility are all water-cooled. Water will enter the facility at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit and leave at about 120 degrees. That provides plenty of cooling for systems and also plenty of heat energy to be used for other purposes around the building. As another energy advantage, running pumps to move the water takes much less energy than running air conditioners.

Data centers without walls

New efficiency tactics in the data center playbook include stripping out extra metal on all system housings, using curtains instead of walls and sealing off unused sections of the data center so energy isn't wasted trying to cool empty space.

In some cases, the walls will disappear all together, even the exterior ones. These new open data centers have been successful in places with colder climates, and Microsoft is building one in Virginia to see just how far south a data center can be located and still use Mother Nature to help keep things cool. 

Government is also likely to start using more of the techniques that companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft have adopted to improve their data centers’ energy efficiency, including using fresh air instead of chillers (“free cooling”) to cool the servers, and running facilities at warmer temperatures. 

Given that the General Services Administration recently found that data centers work fine at temperatures as high as 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it may give these new open data center plans a bit more of a temperature scale to play with, ultimately making them more commonplace even in warmer areas.

Mod design

Soon, even an open-air data center may seem archaic. That’s because they sit on a permanent, concrete foundation; the near future will bring smaller, modular data centers that can be deployed quickly almost anywhere. 

The new year will see momentum toward these semi-portable data centers — prefabricated units that can fit onto a flatbed truck and be provisioned to meet expanding or shrinking agency requirements. A modular data center can be delivered to a site, powered up and begin processing data almost immediately. 

More capacity can be delivered later, modules can be removed if they are no longer needed or the whole data center can be packed up and moved someplace else.

Right now, it still takes several months to deploy a modular data center, but that is quickly changing. Schneider Electric is offering agencies a choice of fifteen different pre-configured data centers based on modular technology. Some can be deployed in as little as 12 weeks. That deploying time will only get shorter as modular technology advances.

The military has been using, and refining, this concept for some time, because it needs to rapidly deploy mobile data centers. But it’s still a new concept for most civilian agencies used to having their data centers firmly planted on concrete. 

One company, that specializes in this new type of mobile, scalable data center, IO, even says that its data centers are more protected than the average data center facility, Network World reports. The units are self-contained and software-defined, so they don't rely on a large industrial infrastructure that could be vulnerable to physical or cyber-based attacks, or simply mechanical breakdown.

Going,  going … gone

But the ultimate trend in data centers is already under way and will likely be the most disruptive: virtualization, which could lead to data centers shrinking down to almost nothing, and trumping all other advances. 

Developments in software defined networking (SDN) are driving this trend. 

In a traditional network switch, a control plane draws the network topography and a forwarding plane reads the routing table and sends packets where they need to go. In SDN, those two pieces of hardware are decoupled, and one or both are virtualized within the servers themselves.

A typical government data center is composed of three tiers: server hardware for processing, storage hardware for keeping data safe and a dedicated hardware-based network that links them. Using SDN all but eliminates the last tier as a hardware component because the servers can use software to route and manage the network. Once that happens, the remaining servers can be virtualized, which will retain not only their data and functions but also their SDN data. 

The upshot is a government data center that is composed solely of software, which experts believe could happen very soon. While the remaining hardware will have to be hosted somewhere, it will likely be in a much smaller space. 

"The software-defined data center is where all infrastructure has been virtualized, and the management of that infrastructure is completely controlled by software that is driven by policies," said Doug Bourgeois, chief cloud executive for VMware's U.S. Public Sector division in an interview earlier this year. 

"What this emerging trend is essentially doing is taking what has happened over the last 15 years with server virtualization and bringing that to the network and storage levels. Once these three levels of the infrastructure have been virtualized, the data center becomes orders of magnitude more agile than ever before."

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