Agencies Look to A Software-Defined Future

“SOFTWARE-DEFINED” has become a catchall phrase you can place in front of just about anything IT and have it sound authoritative and futuristic. So it is with next—generation data centers.

But does “software—defined data center,” certainly a current buzz phrase in the industry, describe anything real? It does, but it is an evolving concept. Software will certainly play a bigger role in data centers, but it may be some time before the full features of a software-defined data center are delivered.

When they do arrive, data center operators will be able to define all the various elements of the data center, such as servers, storage, networking and security, as virtualized services, and then scale them as needed to meet demand. Since it will all be controlled centrally through software, operators will also be able to fine-tune such things such as power and cooling.

That’s a heady mix of capabilities. When they’re developed, software-defined data centers should substantially cut costs while making it easier and faster to deliver the applications and compute power to agency users.

The pros, said Simon Campbell-Whyte, executive director of the Data Centre Alliance, are potential gains in the agility of IT to dynamically match demand to supply, an increase in energy efficiency through less dependence on local backup systems, and improved service availability through being able to switch infrastructures and lower the risk of local causes of downtime.

“However, the cons are increased complexity requiring more expertise, a potential loss of control, greater dependency on market conditions and possible concerns around security,” he said.

The key will be understanding the need for a softwaredefined data center, he said, because it will definitely be a horses-for-courses solution. They won’t suit every application profile or business need, but “they can suit a given scenario,” Campbell-Whyte said.

Meanwhile, software is already playing a role in reducing the need for manual configuration of data center hardware. Data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tools are used to monitor and manage how data centers are used, what the energy consumption is for each piece of equipment, and how cooling equipment is working.

DCIM is one of the solutions government agencies have used in their data centers, particularly to comply with such things as President Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which gave agencies a deadline of 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency and conserve water. But it’s not necessarily been an easy thing to use.

NASA, for example, is one of the government’s leaders when it comes to data centers. At one time, it had more than 50 large centers spread across the enterprise and contained in hundreds of server closets and rooms. NASA officials found it difficult to deploy all of the sensors, monitoring equipment and software needed to cover this sprawling infrastructure. Also, the incentives worked against the NASA IT department, which didn’t pay the power bills but would nevertheless have to pay for the DCIM investment even if it wouldn’t get any payback directly from that.

Nevertheless, DCIM is increasingly seen as essential for data center managers who want to have comprehensive and dynamic views of their operations, including the ability to have trending analysis, and predictive planning and change management tools.

In the next phase of DCIM development, the boundaries between the data center and IT management will be crossed to capture an even more complete picture of the digital infrastructure, from application to physical location and real-time power and cooling data, said Daniel Bizo, an analyst at 451 Research. The downside is that most data center software suits don’t cover all functions, return on investment is unclear, and “taking full advantage of the [data center] optimization potential may require institutional changes.”

Meanwhile, he prefers “software-driven” to describe the use of software in the data center. Software-defined is not a bad vision, he said, and in 10 years we will likely see data center digital infrastructures fully converged via software. But, as far as reality is concerned, advanced DCIM is shipping now.