Love in the Data Center

I love the data center.

I’ve heard the responses, too:

  • “You have to say that. Dell EMC, and for all your ‘cloud’ talk, is still a data center company.”
  • “Sure, and you also love cassette tapes, flip phones, and encyclopedias.”
  • “How long until you tell the kids to get off your lawn?”

First, I can love both the data center and the cloud. Second, never tell me I love tape. Third, I don’t have kids on my lawn because I can’t get rid of the skunks.

I love the data center because I’m not convinced that everything will standardize and I think technology still matters.

Everything is Not Standard

IT infrastructure won’t standardize because applications and governments won’t standardize. CIOs use the “electricity” analogy when talking about the data center. They want to consume IT as a commodity. The first problem with that aspiration – application developers.

Application developers block standardization because they are the “talent” in modern businesses. Every business is pivoting to become a technology company – e.g. Tesla is “a sophisticated computer on wheels” and lightbulb companies have become software companies for lighting. Therefore, application developers become business critical talent. When you’re the “talent”, you get what you ask for (witness every professional sports athlete). This is especially true in organizations where nobody really understands what they do. When an application developer asks for a unique performance profile to support a hot new business application, she will get it. When an application developer needs a nonstandard network configuration, he will get it. When an application developer must store data differently than everybody else, it will happen. Artists are the biggest roadblock to conformity; application developers are the artists in most companies that are becoming “software companies that do X”.

Government compliance regulations will also block standardization. Fifteen years ago, the “highly regulated” IT organizations were in federal government, health care, and financials. Today, every company faces complex regulations. Those regulations vary across countries, and they’re always changing. I’ve met multiple organizations with teams of lawyers who manage regulations – and they still get things wrong. Finally, as businesses span industries and geographies, the compliance expectations can even conflict! In a world where politicians know more about making headlines than they do about technology, standardization can’t happen.

Executives want to treat IT like a commoditized utility. The difference between electricity and IT infrastructure is data. Application developers want to do creative things with data. Government organizations want to regulate data access and retention. As long as the talent and the regulator both expect special treatment, IT-as-a-utility is a myth.

Technology Still Matters

The other nemesis of standardization is innovation. If users demand something different, but everything is effectively the same, then there is little value in trying to bypass standards. In our industry, however, things are still changing rapidly. Hardware innovation drives software innovation, and we’re in the midst of relentless hardware turnover.

The storage media upheaval seems to be accelerating. Ten years ago, Data Domain declared that “Tape is Dead”. Dell EMC declared 2016 to be “The Year of All Flash” for primary storage. Many IT organizations think this is a time to take a deep breath because history says it will be another decade before the media shifts again. I think the next disruption will begin in the next 3 years, not in a decade. The “Disk is Dead” (All-Flash Protection Storage) and “Non-Volatile Memory” (where I/O moves closer to the application) revolutions are coming.

Analytics has also transformed companies’ relationship to IT infrastructure. Successful organizations mine as much information as they can – about their customers, their teams, their processes, and their interactions. When running analytics, the most important ingredient is – DATA. What data are people accessing? What region is leveraging different services? What applications are getting the most load at different times of day? Good companies ask how they can improve every aspect of their business. Great companies answer those questions with concrete data, and then take action. How often have you wanted to know more detail on what was happening somewhere? When you cede control of your IT infrastructure, you lose access to its telemetry. In a world where data and metadata are your most precious assets, why let somebody else have them?

Technology still matters. Performance, cost, scale, and functionality can change in a matter of months. Those changes can mean the difference between launching an application and failing to meet the ROI goals. Meanwhile, analytics enables businesses to better understand how they run internally and connect with customers externally, on a global scale.

To control your destiny, sometimes you need to control your IT infrastructure.

Conclusion

I love the data center. I love building products that power the data center. It has provided the infrastructure for unparalleled growth and invention around the world. Obviously, we need to simplify the data center technologies – to enable our users to deliver value more quickly to their customers. We need to ensure that we’re not simply adding value-free features or products. But the data center is here to stay.

With all that, I love the cloud. There is enormous value in standardized cloud applications and infrastructure. It’s a great way to develop, explore, and scale. It’s ideal for a variety of applications. But with all the “prodigal son” love that cloud gets, sometimes it’s important to remind the first son how much you love him.

When you choose to standardize, you settle for the least common denominator. In a world filled with constantly changing demands (developers and regulators) and constantly changing supply (innovation and analytics), are you sure you’re ready to settle?

~Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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