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Wednesday, 06 June 2012 14:42

A Data Center without Boundaries: Changing the IT Management Paradigm

Written by  Eric Carter

The irony of today’s growing businesses is that while a significant amount of money, time, and effort is spent building state-of-the-art data centers, the benefits of those investments frequently remain largely out of reach where they matters most – the front lines.

Edge locations such as regional and branch offices, retail locations, research and development outposts, manufacturing plants, construction sites, medical clinics, and warehouses expand outward to stay close to customers around the world and drive business in new markets. But, what typically grows with these sites is new IT infrastructure – outside the data center – propped up to ensure local performance, local protection, and up-time. In fact, a significant number of critical business applications still reside outside the data center leading to server and data sprawl in places where IT has a much harder time managing it. In a recent survey of 207 global IT leaders, Forrester Research found that over half of respondents reported having 50 percent or more of their company data located at branch. This figure is startling given the amount of focus and effort that has been placed on the data center as the bastion of consolidated IT. The same survey indicated that 70 percent of respondents feel their consolidation with their servers and storage efforts are less than 50 percent complete.

With so much infrastructure and intellectual property living somewhere other than within the four walls of the data center, IT leaders are left dealing with major concerns around security and protection of data as well as the general availability of the resources needed by the edge location. Server virtualization tools have been extremely helpful in lowering some of management overhead associated with servers in remote sites, yet despite offering some management relief, the ever-present concern for IT and business leaders is that these virtual servers and data still live somewhere other than the data center. Protecting the data and systems in those remote locations is inherently more difficult. In fact a whole industry segment focused on branch office backup and recovery has grown up in the wake of the inability of businesses to bring these critical systems into a data center environment. Costs quickly rise as organizations purchase and install software, systems, and storage at the edge to ensure business operations can continue and that data is sufficiently safeguarded.

The consolidation journey
Over the past several years, many businesses have undertaken projects to identify edge servers and applications that can be brought home to the data center without any adverse consequences. Network latency and bandwidth costs imposed by distance have largely been addressed with wide area network (WAN) optimization technologies. In fact, WAN optimization has been one of the primary enablers to centralization of IT to the data center. Without it, application services such as email and collaboration tools like SharePoint simply won’t perform over long distances. Yet as revealed by the Forrester study, businesses are still churning out significant quantities of data at edge locations. This can be attributed typically to the fact that:

  • The edge is where business is taking place
  • There are applications and data that need to reside locally to run effectively
  • Businesses won’t consolidate due to concerns over local application availability

It’s not hard to think of examples:

  • A regional banking office is responsible for the scanning and input of check images and deploys a local server, application, and storage to ensure data is quickly and effectively captured for the business
  • An engineering outpost working with massively large CAD files finds the performance of working with data from the remote data center location unbearable; therefore a local file server is the solution to the problem
  • An international ad agency with globally dispersed satellite offices that use digital photos, graphics, and videos and need local access to applications and data for effectively serving clients

A new approach
Given the necessity in these distributed business environments to use de-centralized applications, is there then any hope to achieve 100 percent consolidation of edge servers, applications, and data to the data center where IT can more effectively secure, manage and protect these resources? Yes: Hope has arrived in the form of a new architectural approach recently introduced to the market that effectively allows IT to consolidate and manage all edge servers, applications, and data in the data center. This new approach, called edge virtual server infrastructure (edge-VSI) does for edge servers outside of the data center what virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) did for desktops. But unlike VDI, edge-VSI total cost of ownership is 20 to 50 percent lower compared to business-as-usual.

The common denominator for all of these distributed edge servers is storage. Edge-VSI decouples storage from its server, enabling virtualized servers, applications and data to be brought back to the data center. Remarkably, the data is still projected back out to edge locations where compute resources deliver application performance as if the storage is still local to the server – even over thousands of miles. Imagine a user in Paris accessing a virtual server and application that is accessing data that is managed thousands of miles away in a Chicago data center. Edge-VSI can establish a stateless branch office where application performance is local for all transactions yet IT is able to manage, backup, provision, patch, expand, and protect the virtual servers and data within the four walls of the data center.

For the first time, organizations can expand the use of data center storage and data protection solutions beyond the data center. IT can centralize management of their entire logical global IT infrastructure even when those resources are dedicated solely to the operation of a single business office location.

Edge-VSI is more than simply running a storage protocol over long distance. (That on its own has proven problematic, as most operating systems and applications break down when encountering latency in accessing block storage.) An edge-VSI approach goes further to provide predictive intelligence to transfer storage blocks from the data center to the edge in a way that enables seamless performance – just as it was with local disk. It can also cache a working set of data for local access and accelerate data writes asynchronously back to storage in the data center. When you combine these three capabilities, edge-VSI effectively delivers a complete consolidation solution. Moreover, the solution supports disconnected operations in the event of link outages. Applications at the edge can continue to churn out data and carry on local operation. When the link is re-established, all data is sent to the data center seamlessly.

The ROI of edge-VSI
Businesses who adopt edge-VSI are reaping the benefits of centralization and consolidation. IT is able to take advantage of greater cost and management efficiencies at data centers. Before, islands of servers, application and data required separate management and protection and typically were at higher risk due to potentially loose practices and less stringent security at remote sites. Now, edge infrastructure in the form of virtualized servers, applications, and data can be stored on reliable enterprise-class disk in the data center. Gone is the need to purchase and manage storage and backup at edge locations. Data loss occurrences are greatly reduced. Data is present with up-to-the-minute – or even second – currency in the data center improving IT recovery point objectives (RPOs). Recovery time objectives (RTOs) also improve, as it is unnecessary to perform full data recoveries to restore service to branch offices. Data safely available in the data center is re-streamed to the local branch as needed. In the data center, edge data is protected along with all other corporate data using mature snapshot and backup protection practices as well as site-to-site disaster recovery replication.

Previously, many organizations would overprovision servers at the edge; now users of the edge-VSI approach find themselves able to more precisely provision to match current requirements. In the future, resources can be easily expanded without the need to travel to a remote site to install additional storage. As new offices are opened or come online, it is far easier to prep the server, application, and storage in the data center and simply have a new site connect to the data center and boot up new systems across the WAN. As time progresses and patching and upgrading of software and applications become inevitable, these operations can all now occur in the data center as opposed to requiring local IT personnel at the edge.

This new architectural approach allows businesses to extend the boundaries of the data center and centralize remaining servers and data. IT organizations that have been stalled in their edge consolidation efforts can now move forward and gain a new level of management simplicity, greater security, and complete control.

Carter_EricEric Carter is Senior Product Marketing Manager at Riverbed Technology, the IT performance company.

1. Successfully Consolidating Branch-Office Infrastructure In The Face Of More Users, Services, and Devices,” Forrester Consulting, October 2011