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August 13, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 17
Page(s) 7 in print issue

Dark Data Centers
Just An Eco-Friendly Dream?
The idea of dark data centers is not new. A 1989 IDG Communications technology roundtable in Germany referred, somewhat wistfully, to the dark data center as “a distant dream,” lamenting the inability of then-current technology to permit the creation of such centers.

Twenty-one years later, the dark data center is an increasingly viable strategy for technology infrastructure. Iron Mountain, which provides document management, archiving, and technology consulting services from offices around the world, serves as one example: The company touts “Room 48,” its dark data center, infrequently staffed and equipped with motion-activated lighting. Iron Mountain’s main data facilities are located underground in what was once a limestone mine in western Pennsylvania: cool, energy-efficient, and—quite literally—dark.

Of course, if you can’t go dark, going “dim” may be almost as good—and perhaps more realistic.

The dim data center, one in which power and cooling is moved out of the server room while remote access mechanisms are used as much as possible to control and monitor systems, may be as close as most of us can (or need to) get to a truly dark data center.

Virtualization can also play a part in reducing the data center’s energy footprint. A virtualized approach creates a consolidated—and therefore more efficient—data center environment: What once required multiple servers—each consuming energy, generating heat, and requiring maintenance—can often be accomplished with just one physical box, thus mitigating the equipment’s impact and reducing its overall setup and maintenance requirements.

Impossibly High Expectations?

But there’s another question to consider: What if the whole idea of dark data centers has been overhyped? In our zeal to create efficient and eco-friendly business processes, have we come to expect too much from the idea?

Gartner analyst and research director Bill Malik thinks so. He notes that the promise of the dark data center isn’t always realized and feels that the idea is only now poised to exit the third phase of what Gartner refers to as the hype cycle, “the Trough of Disillusionment.” After that, it will enter the more realistic “Slope of Enlightenment” phase, during which practical experimentation begins to take place, leading eventually to the point at which a technology finally begins to be productive.

In the ’90s, Malik says, people spoke of dark data centers as being a panacea: “I go to zero headcount, and I have all of these amazing productivity numbers.” Now, many people have begun to look more realistically at the technology. The discussion now, Malik says, “is not about a dark data center but about having a data center that has ‘smart hands’ —that is, one that makes use of a colocation or hosting vendor.”

Malik points out that colocation is a type of (often cloud-based) outsourcing that is effective and cost-efficient because it consolidates data center activities offsite and thus eliminates some of the need for a dark data center in the first place. It requires manpower, but “that individual is covering many, many people’s server farms, and that’s all that that individual does, so labor cost is much smaller” than if each organization required a dedicated person.

Whichever approach turns out to be most realistic, the idea of dark, dim, or colocated data centers seems to lend credence to the notion that people, far from being superfluous, are as important as ever—but that their roles should largely be to envision, design, and test systems and processes, not to hang around in data centers ensuring that those processes are working. If your data center is constantly full of IT staff scurrying to resolve problems or avoid catastrophe, then that may be indicative of an entirely different—and perhaps more systemic—issue.

by Rod Scher
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