Data Centers

10 critical elements of an efficient data center

Read about 10 "must haves" your data center needs to be successful.

The evolution of the data center may transform it into a very different environment thanks to the advent of new technologies such as cloud computing and virtualization. However, there will always be certain essential elements required by any data center to operate smoothly and successfully.  These elements will apply whether your data center is the size of a walk-in closet or an airplane hanger - or perhaps even on a floating barge, which rumors indicate Google is building:

Figure A

 Credit: Wikimedia Commons

1. Environmental controls

A standardized and predictable environment is the cornerstone of any quality data center.  It's not just about keeping things cool and maintaining appropriate humidity levels (according to Wikipedia, the recommended temperature range is 61-75 degrees Fahrenheit/16-24 degrees Celsius and 40-55% humidity). You also have to factor in fire suppression, air flow and power distribution.  One company I worked at was so serious about ensuring their data center remained as pristine as possible that it mandated no cardboard boxes could be stored in that room. The theory behind this was that cardboard particles could enter the airstream and potentially pollute the servers thanks to the distribution mechanism which brought cooler air to the front of the racks. That might be extreme but it illustrates the importance of the concept.

2. Security

It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyhow) that physical security is a foundation of a reliable data center. Keeping your systems under lock and key and providing entry only to authorized personnel goes hand and hand with permitting only the necessary access to servers, applications and data over the network. It's safe to say that the most valuable assets of any company (other than people, of course) reside in the data center. Small-time thieves will go after laptops or personal cell phones. Professionals will target the data center. Door locks can be overcome, so I recommend alarms as well. Of course, alarms can also be fallible so think about your next measure: locking the server racks? Backup power for your security system? Hiring security guards? It depends on your security needs, but keep in mind that "security is a journey, not a destination."

3. Accountability

Speaking as a system administrator, I can attest that most IT people are professional and trustworthy.  However, that doesn't negate the need for accountability in the data center to track the interactions people have with it. Data centers should log entry details via badge access (and I recommend that these logs are held by someone outside of IT such as the Security department, or that copies of the information are kept in multiple hands such as the IT Director and VP). Visitors should sign in and sign out and remain under supervision at all times. Auditing of network/application/file resources should be turned on. Last but not least, every system should have an identified owner, whether it is a server, a router, a data center chiller, or an alarm system.

4. Policies

Every process involved with the data center should have a policy behind it to help keep the environment maintained and managed. You need policies for system access and usage (for instance, only database administrators have full control to the SQL server). You should have policies for data retention – how long do you store backups? Do you keep them off-site and if so when do these expire? The same concept applies to installing new systems, checking for obsolete devices/services, and removal of old equipment – for instance, wiping server hard drives and donating or recycling the hardware.

5. Redundancy

 Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The first car I ever owned was a blue Ford Pinto. My parents paid $400 for it and at the time, gas was a buck a gallon, so I drove everywhere. It had a spare tire which came in handy quite often. I'm telling you this not to wax nostalgic but to make a point: even my old breakdown-prone car had redundancy. Your data center is probably much shinier, more expensive, and highly critical, so you need more than a spare tire to ensure it stays healthy. You need at least two of everything that your business requires to stay afloat, whether this applies to mail servers, ISPs, data fiber links, or voice over IP (VOIP) phone system VMs. Three or more wouldn't hurt on many scenarios either!

It's not just redundant components that are important but also the process to test and make sure they work reliably – such as scheduled failover drills and research into new methodologies.

6. Monitoring

Monitoring of all systems for uptime and health will bring tremendous proactive value but that's just the beginning. You also need to monitor how much bandwidth is in use, as well as energy, storage, physical rack space, and anything else which is a "commodity" provided by your data center.  

There are free tools such as Nagios for the nuts and bolts monitoring and more elaborate solutions such as Dranetz for power measurement. Alerts when outages or low thresholds occur is part of the process – and make sure to arrange a failsafe for your alerts so they are independent of the data center (for instance, if your email server is on a VMWare ESX host which is dead, another system should monitor for this and have the ability to send out notifications).

7. Scalability

So your company needs 25 servers today for an array of tasks including virtualization, redundancy, file services, email, databases, and analytics? What might you need next month, next year, or in the next decade? Make sure you have the appropriate sized data center with sufficient expansion capacity to increase power, network, physical space, and storage.  If your data center needs are going to grow – and if your company is profitable I can guarantee this is the case - today is the day to start planning.  

Planning for scalability isn't something you stop, either; it's an ongoing process. Smart companies actively track and report on this concept. I've seen references in these reports to "the next rivet to pop" which identifies a gap in a critical area of scalability that must be met (e.g., lack of physical rack space) as soon as possible.

8. Change management

You might argue that Change Management falls under the "Policies" section, a consideration which has some bearing. However, I would respond that it is both a policy and a philosophy. Proper guidelines for change management ensure that nothing occurs in your data center which hasn't been planned, scheduled, discussed and agreed upon along with providing backout steps or a Plan "B." Whether it's bringing new systems to life or burying old ones, the lifecycle of all elements of your data center must fall in accordance with your change management outlook.

9. Organization

I've never known an IT pro who wasn't pressed for time. Rollout of new systems can result in some corners being cut due to panic over missed deadlines – and these corners invariably seem to include making the environment nice and neat.

A successful system implementation doesn't just mean plugging it in and turning it on; it also includes integrating devices into the data center via standardized and supportable methods. Your server racks should be clean and laid out in a logical fashion (production systems in one rack, test systems in another). Your cables should be the appropriate length and run through cabling guides rather than haphazardly draped. Which do you think is easier to troubleshoot and support; a data center that looks like this:

 Credit: Wikimedia Commons


 Credit: Wikimedia Commons

10. Documentation

The final piece of the puzzle is appropriate, helpful, and timely documentation – another ball which can easily be dropped during an implementation if you don't follow strict procedures. It's not enough to just throw together a diagram of your switch layout and which server is plugged in where; your change management guidelines should mandate that documentation is kept relevant and available to all appropriate personnel as the details evolve – which they always do.

Not to sound morbid, but I live by the "hit by a bus" rule. If I'm hit by a bus tomorrow, one less thing for everyone to worry about is whether my work or personal documentation is up to date, since I spend time each week making sure all changes and adjustments are logged accordingly. On a less melodramatic note, if I decide to switch jobs I don't want to spend two weeks straight in a frantic braindump of everything my systems do.

The whole ball of wax

The great thing about these concepts is that they are completely hardware/software agnostic.  Whether your data center contains servers running Linux, Windows or other operating systems, or is just a collection of network switches and a mainframe, hopefully these will be of use to you and your organization.

To tie it all together, think of your IT environment as a wheel, with the data center as the hub and these ten concepts as the surrounding "tire":

 Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Devoting time and energy to each component will ensure the wheels of your organization turn smoothly.  After all, that's the goal of your data center, right?

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Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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