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Tech Insight Data Center Management: Trends and Challenges

Seagate surveyed data center managers throughout the United States and China to explore the most prominent issues facing facility decision makers.

Data Center Management in the U.S. and China: Trends and Challenges

Business and technology decision makers often focus on factors such as performance and uptime when investing in new solutions. However, as the amount of data that companies collect grows, organizations have had to place more emphasis on a larger number of factors than they have in years past. Seagate surveyed data center managers throughout the United States and China to explore the most prominent issues facing facility decision makers.

The Seagate Data Center Manager study polled 651 respondents, who were screened based on several qualification criteria. Those polled had to have IT management responsibilities and work in their organization's data center (with a minimum of 50 servers or 100 terabytes of storage). In addition, individuals had to have some responsibility over storage devices. Below is a summary of the study’s key findings:

  • Budgets are expected to increase, but not as quickly as capacity demand.
  • Security is a top priority and challenge for both regions.
  • Drive purchasing and replacement are the most common strategies for accommodating data growth.
  • Time-consuming drive management activities represent the largest storage-related pain point.

This report will explore the key issues that data center managers face, as well as how storage relates to common challenges associated with running a facility. However, it is necessary to first understand general data center growth and budget trends.

Data Center and Data Growth Trends

As many businesses place greater demands on their IT departments to spur innovation and generate new efficiencies, it makes sense to first look at the issue of facility budgets. The good news is that a majority of data center budgets are expected to increase over the next year. This is countered by the fact that storage capacity demand is expected to grow at approximately double that rate. Below is a breakdown of how respondents plan to accommodate expanding data growth.[see Datat Growth Strategies chart below]

data-growth-strategies-578x388

The most commonly cited strategies involved new investment; the majority of data center operators in both regions planned to purchase new hardware, while replacing or upgrading existing solutions was the second highest response. However, fewer respondents (30%) planned to hire new employees to manage these assets, suggesting that they will likely turn to the hardware and software to ease the burden of management. This is also reflected in the most common storage pain points, which are focused on drive management activities.

Although respondents in China tended to be more likely to have new investments planned, some of this may be due to differences in budget growth. While the amount of increase was similar for both regions, more respondents in China (75%) expected larger budgets than those in the United States (54%). This gap may also help to explain some of the key differences in concerns among data centers in the two regions.

Data Center Operators: Key Concerns and Top Priorities

Managing the modern data center presents a myriad of challenges, and managers are feeling pressure due to a number of different factors. While there were some regional differences in this area, one factor was prevalent in both countries. When asked to identify the top three challenges for their data centers in 2013, security topped the list with 31% of all survey respondents ranking it the highest. {see Challenges (Top 10) chart below}

challenges-top-10-501x388.jpg

Interestingly, data security was ranked below system performance and staff issues for U.S. respondents as a top challenge, but this group ranked improving security as a first priority.

Hardware management presented another top challenge for organizations, but some of the reasons for this difficulty were different depending on region. For instance, U.S. respondents were more likely to cite staffing issues as a top challenge, while data center operators in China expressed frustration with infrastructure complexity. The difference can likely be attributed to the lower frequency of budget growth in the former. However, both of these problems suggest a heightened demand for streamlining management activities. A limited number of employees will ultimately impact the ability to detect and prevent issues, while the issue of complexity can make it difficult even for a large staff to operate efficiently.

In addition to challenges, Seagate asked respondents what their data center's top three priorities were for 2013. There was some overlap in the area of security, which garnered the highest number of responses. However, this question also raised new issues and presented some significant regional differences. For example, data center operators in the United States (28%) placed more emphasis on reducing cost than those in China (19%).

The other top priorities for data centers in China were to increase agility and consolidate operations. This may be a reflection of frustration with infrastructure complexity, as it can become more difficult to incorporate new technologies when the IT ecosystem consists of so many moving parts. Similarly, the focus on operational consolidation suggests that emphasis is placed on improving efficiency to deal with expanding data volume.

It is also worth noting that these issues are not entirely separate. While U.S. respondents were more likely to deal with constrained budgets, the activities associated with data center consolidation would likely produce cost benefits, whether they stem from lower hardware costs or fewer staff hours spent managing devices. In other words, motivations for doing so may differ, but addressing the core challenges of data center operation is likely to achieve comparable results.

Data Security: A Detailed Look

The importance of protecting information stored in data centers has risen in prominence alongside news of high-profile breaches. Given that it is a top priority for both regions, it may be helpful to take a closer look at this problem in particular.

Security in general has been climbing executive agendas due to three main factors: mobile security, big data and advanced targeted attacks.

Although not all of those issues are storage problems, the mention of big data does corroborate the notion that expanding volume and complexity plays a role in making data center security more stressful. In addition, the emergence of targeted attacks makes it more important to protect data in transit, while stored on active drives and after devices have been retired.

InformationWeek's 2013 Strategic Security Study revealed another layer of complexity to the issue. Although the IT industry pays a lot of attention to external attacks, organizations are comparably worried about malicious insiders. When asked about the greatest security risks they face, 53% of respondents said cyber criminals, while 51% cited authorized users.

Fortunately, the Ponemon Institute's 2013 IT Security Tracking Study found that senior-level IT professionals were well aware of the need for comprehensive security {see Important Technologies for Combating Security Risk chart below}. Encryption for data at rest was rated as the third most important technology for mitigating risk, behind security intelligence and access governance systems. Considering that more than 50% of respondents rated numerous solutions as important, businesses have recognized the need for a multifaceted strategy to address this problem.

important-technologies-for-combatting-security-risk-475x430.jpg

One potential issue that could arise from utilizing numerous solutions is difficulty in managing them. For example, employing encryption for data at rest can be a cumbersome and time-consuming process, particularly if the organization does not have an information governance strategy in place.

The Issue of Storage

Rapid data growth and increasing demand for capacity place storage at the heart of many data center challenges. Particularly as enterprises collect and generate larger amounts of information, understanding the issues affecting storage can lead to significant improvements in overall data center management activity. {See earlier Data Growth Strategies chart}

The leading strategy for accommodating data growth is to purchase new storage solutions, cited by 60% of respondents. This is followed by hardware replacement at 55%, suggesting a dynamic storage ecosystem in most data centers as drives are retired and new hardware is purchased. Despite the rapid rate of change in the average storage environment, fewer respondents (30% of those polled) planned to increase staffing.

This means that data center operators worldwide will likely have to follow the do more with less paradigm that has become prevalent in resource-strapped organizations. The other issues facing data centers, such as existing staffing difficulties in the United States, means that managers would benefit from adjusting storage management practices and vendors will need to implement solutions that streamline drive management activities. For example, one prominent concern regarding aging drives is that older hardware is more likely to fail and may experience performance degradation. However, retiring drives too early will result in higher total cost of ownership. In this case, it may be beneficial to adopt performance analytics software to ensure drives are working optimally and to use predictive analysis to identify potential failures before they disrupt operations.

Conclusions and Recommendations

As the research shows, data centers face a number of challenges that can all affect total cost of ownership and the difficulty of managing their hardware. Businesses are expected to continue generating large volumes of information, and addressing that data growth requires a comprehensive strategy that makes strategic purchases while maximizing those investments.

It is important to consider total cost of ownership from both a process and a technological perspective. While storage hardware management represents a core concern among data center operators, organizations would also benefit from making these tasks more efficient. For context, Payscale.com lists the median hourly rate for a data center technician as US$26.11, and Seagate research revealed the five most time-consuming storage drive activities:

  • Monitoring or analyzing devices (2.09 hours)
  • Troubleshooting drives (1.46 hours)
  • Improving drive management processes (1.25 hours)
  • Researching new solutions (1.24 hours)
  • Training new staff on procedures (1.22 hours)

** Average hours spent per drive management employee (per week)

Three of those activities are directly related to daily management tasks, meaning that organizations would see an immediate reduction in total cost of ownership by improving operational efficiency. For example, a 20% reduction in drive monitoring and analysis time alone would save US$44 per drive management employee per month. The savings would be even greater if carried out across other key activities, and improving some processes would likely create widespread benefit.

The hardware itself can also play a role in how efficiently tasks can be completed, so it is important to consider the impact of IT investments. Data security serves as a good example. Technology that makes it easier to encrypt stored data would make the process itself faster while mitigating the risk of a costly breach. Solutions such as Self-Encrypting Drives (SED) are especially valuable in the highly dynamic environments of today's data centers. Drives that leave the data center without being protected put business data at significant risk of being stolen, and even when the information is erased, there is a chance for recovery. SED technology ensures that even if an unauthorized entity gains access to the hardware, the stored data is unreadable.

It is important to consider active drive management and hardware retirement from multiple angles. While encryption is a common strategy, erasure represents a frequent activity among data center operators. Seagate found that 3% of all drives in the typical data center are erased in a given week. Because motivations for erasure can vary from drive repurposing to securely retiring old hardware, improving efficiency in this area would significantly reduce TCO. Based on median salaries, for example, organizations could save US$31 per drive per employee each week by employing solutions such as Seagate Instant Secure Erase.

Data center ecosystems have become increasingly dynamic as new challenges emerge alongside traditional issues. Seagate recommends that data centers address these challenges both from an IT process and technological perspective so that solutions are implemented as part of a cohesive strategy to accommodate expanding data volume and growing complexity.

"Download Infographic: The Complexity + Costs of Running a Cloud Data Center"

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