Cloud cover: Clearing up some misunderstandings about data centres

26 Mar 2020

Séamus Dunne. Image: Interxion

Interxion Ireland MD Séamus Dunne thinks the term ‘data centres’ fails to capture the extent of on-premise data management happening in businesses across the country.

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It’s a bugbear of Séamus Dunne’s that, even in this age where digital information is widely shared, data centres are misunderstood.

Let’s start with the trendy ‘move to the cloud’. That term conjures up the image of data stored in the air itself, gliding frictionlessly across the world with no discernible footprint. While anyone with even a basic understanding of technology knows this is not borne out in real life, the word ‘cloud’ still does the job of obfuscating the hard edges of data storage, transmission and management.

Dunne is concerned with people understanding data centres because he is the recently appointed MD of Interxion Ireland. Interxion’s business is all about data centres, providing colocation services from more than 50 facilities across Europe, and Dunne took the helm at the Irish operation last summer.

“What we do when we build our data centres is we create a campus environment, and what that can often consist of is installing bulk fibre connections across multiple routes for redundancy between the data centres. So you create a virtual campus,” Dunne explained.

“In other words, I might have five data centres, for example, all connected with bulk dark fibre between them. The point of presence for, let’s say, ExpressRoute to Microsoft Azure, the infrastructure for it might reside in one data centre. But that latency between the data centres with bulk fibre is so small that it’s a virtual campus … It essentially is one virtual data centre.”

‘The cloud just means somebody else’s data centre’

Multi-tenant data centres such as Interxion’s are attractive to businesses seeking that aforementioned move to the cloud, but Dunne wants to dispel any myth that this gives their IT a soft and fuzzy infrastructure.

“Do people understand cloud? Some people [believe] the Gartner paper on the death of the data centre, [but] you know, the cloud just means somebody else’s data centre,” he said. “The more workloads move to the cloud, then the more they move into a hyperscale data centre is what that means. There’s still a data centre. It’s just somebody else’s.”

And so, the growth of data centres in Ireland is attributed to this very movement to cloud services. But, while broadly touted as the next natural step for modern enterprise, Dunne is realistic about the cloud’s limitations.

“When a business is moving to the cloud, they may have 100 applications and 30 of them easily move to the cloud. The next 30 need some sort of development to be cloud ready, and some of them may never move to the cloud, such as legacy applications and different infrastructure,” he said.

“The default position is more of a hybrid cloud. So that can mean utilising public cloud services, but also having internal cloud services or private cloud.”

The carbon footprint of data

And so, the data centre business is expanding with workloads increasingly moving to cloud infrastructure – including hybrid systems – for increased efficiency and lower cost. “Less capex, more opex,” as Dunne put it. And for some businesses, this is also a greener solution.

The alternative is running your own on-premise data centre via a so-called ‘comms room’. These rooms – or, in some companies, entire floors – filled with server racks make up an enterprise data centre operating in a building planned for human office work. In terms of energy management alone, this is not an efficient way to handle data.

“I wouldn’t say we actually know how much IT is run in enterprise-owned data centres or comms rooms around the country, but I can guarantee that it is the most inefficient and most carbon unfriendly way of running IT systems,” said Dunne.

‘My job is to persuade any business in Ireland running IT not to do it in your own data centre’

The carbon footprint of data is becoming more and more of a concern, but there appears to be little economic interest in decreasing the amount of data flowing around the world to mitigate this. In that scenario, finding the most energy-efficient and carbon-neutral ways to run purpose-built data centres could be the only answer.

“For me, in Interxion, my job more than anything is to persuade any business in Ireland running IT – which means every business – not to do it in your own data centre.”

Edge of the future

All of this is under the assumption that data will continue on its upward trajectory, and all signs point to this. Already, Interxion clients are gearing up for the new possibilities to be unlocked with 5G.

“I think [5G will] be picked up very quickly because it’s such a step function in terms of bandwidth and speeds and this will enable internet of things activity. I think things that have been dreamed about for a while will be possible,” said Dunne.

Once again, Dunne is measured in his approach and can’t see the 5G revolution coming this year. (And, indeed, this conversation took place prior to the present global pandemic.)

However, he thinks we could see the beginnings of the transformative power of 5G emerging in “2021 at best”, and “once it starts becoming used, when it goes mainstream, it’ll be exponential fast”.

This will then usher in the next big trend in enterprise technology: edge computing. “That will really become critical with the advent of 5G and with the growth of the internet of things. Then we’ll see some sort of data storage and data management and computing at the edge, in close proximity to where the data’s being collected. And that will be an exponential increase when 5G occurs,” said Dunne.

“Then edge will really mean where the population centres are or where the IoT sensors are, so where the data is being gathered. And the latency requirements will need to be so stringent that you’re going to want to do a lot of processing at the edge.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.