Data centers: What businesses need to know

Data centers, in the sense of a centralized 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 centers 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 center 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 center usage. Primarily, they must ensure that their data center 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 center correctly has never been so high. For many firms, it could ultimately be the difference between success and failure.

How data centers work

Essentially, a data center is a dedicated space where companies store their IT infrastructure. Far from simply storing digital documents and information, data centers often contain the very foundations of your company’s IT output, from individual applications to entire operating systems

Depending on the business, a data center could be based locally as a single hardware rack, or take up several million square feet.

The physical appearance of a data center will vary slightly based on the specific hardware being used, but generally consists of a series of servers connected together. 

Data center managers will be tasked with ensuring the security and reliability of these servers. Increasingly, businesses access their data center over wireless communications, particularly with the growth of cloud computing and more firms choosing to use off-premise data centers.

Do it yourself, managed hosting or colocation

For many businesses, the first decision to make when choosing a data center is whether to manage it themselves or outsource it to a third-party supplier. There are many reasons why an organization may choose to manage their own data center, with freedom being high on the list. 

Running your own data center 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 organizations that possess sufficient time and resources, or those with a small IT output.

Once businesses have decided to manage their own data centers, they may then want to consider colocation as a potential option. With colocation, businesses still own and maintain all their data center 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 center. 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 center hardware remains under the ownership of the business, they can configure as they see fit.

However, this may not suit every business, particularly as organizations 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 center 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 center, 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 center considerations 

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

  • Location – If you are managing your own data center , you’re likely to need one that can be easily accessed. Regular maintenance is important and being able to visit your data center easily in the event of disruption is vital. Conversely, if you are using a third-party vendor, the location of their data centers are crucial to ensuring that you are meeting all data compliance regulations.
  • Security – data center security is a combination of both physical security (ensuring that only authorized 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 centers 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 organizations should still ensure that their data center contract allows for flexibility.
  • Reliability – Your data center may be the key to your entire IT infrastructure, so its reliability is vital. Businesses must devote enough time and resources to data center management, or alternatively, choose a supplier with an adequate service level agreement (SLA). Many data center operators now spread resources across multiple facilities to ensure that even if an entire data center is inoperable, businesses can remain online.

For modern businesses, the  data center is no longer an afterthought. Managing your data center 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 analyzed increasing all the time and cloud computing continuing to grow in popularity, the data center will surely only grow in prominence in the years to come.

Barclay Ballard

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with ITProPortal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.