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Editor’s Question: What challenges will data centre leaders face in 2021?

Editor’s Question: What challenges will data centre leaders face in 2021?

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This month’s Editor’s Question focuses on the challenges which data centre leaders should expect to face next year. We hear from four experts.

Justin Augat, VP of Marketing at iland Cloud, said IT organisations have long experienced the management and logistics challenges of owning and operating their own data centres. Whether it be responding to new resource requests, managing a new solution, or migrating off an old hardware unit, the activities that need to be performed regularly within the data centre are as dependent on technical aptitude as they are on speed of execution. “For many, these challenges are nothing new. In fact, they are commonly cited as primary drivers for the adoption of cloud-based services,” said Augat.

“But for some organisations that have not yet transitioned to cloud, or have unique conditions or requirements that prohibit their move to cloud, the year-end tradition of data centre planning must be completed to ensure smooth operations in the future,” continued Augat. “Unfortunately, 2021 may be more important than years past to get right. 2020 was obviously filled with surprises and challenges that most data centre operators did not anticipate. This meant that in many cases, organisations were ‘building the plane while flying it’ as IT leaders quickly adapted to change (and resource demand) while managing to the plan of record. As a result, organisations put major projects on hold in anticipation of continued uncertainty.

“While it’s very possible that 2021 will be more predictable, it will prove wise to expect the unexpected next year – but what does this mean? Let’s focus on three major categories that IT teams will likely continue to deal with in 2021: remote management; supply chain; and supporting data centre equipment.

  • Remote management may be the single biggest challenge that administrators faced this year. This includes supporting existing employees working from home, onboarding new hires remotely and enabling IT administrators (that could no longer enter the physical data centre) to do all of the above remotely. For 2021, smart leaders are going to anticipate a similar trend, but likely with a lower growth curve: 1) Infrastructure to support work from home (including software, increased resources for security, capacity, bandwidth and more). 2) Dedicated remote support personnel (including backup plans for personnel that may be impacted by COVID). 3) Scalable plan/programmes to make it all happen. 
  • Supply chain management: When employees started working at home, IT leaders rushed to order new hardware and other physical equipment. Unfortunately, many hardware suppliers could not keep up and the resulting demand/supply created a massive shortage. While the situation has largely been corrected, the need to embrace economies of scale will enable IT leaders to quickly adapt to any supply chain issues/shortages.
  • Supporting data centre equipment: Looking beyond storage, servers and networking equipment, leaders need to be cognizant of the supporting equipment to keep IT running. Also, in this category, companies should consider what personnel equipment is needed to support the data centre. In this case, consider corporate supplies of high-end masks, rapid tests and other costs that may be incurred to support data centre activity until the pandemic is over. 

Prudent risk management is necessary until the ‘all clear’ is given on a global level, for a brighter, more predictable 2021.

Jon Healy, Operations Director at Keysource, said:

COVID and post-COVID

2021 is likely to still be dominated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the technology changes and challenges it has inflicted upon businesses and its effect on people’s ability to work, their priorities and decision-making processes. It’s clear that the increased demand on the industry, in the short- and medium-term, will be exacerbated by existing ‘pre-COVID’ challenges such as skills shortages and issues with the speed of delivery. There will also be continued pressure to show resilience, secure operations and deliver rapid growth.

Sustainability

In this year’s Keysource State of the Industry Report, over three-quarters of respondents stated that sustainability will have a medium or high influence on IT decisions over the next 12 months. The requirement for sustainable solutions continues with the introduction of new legislation and regulation – with failure to report on energy and carbon resulting in significant fines and penalties.

This perhaps comes as no surprise. There is no doubt that energy and carbon are high on political agendas and that we are likely to see more policy measures, particularly if the UK is to reach our legally binding zero carbon target in the UK by 2050. The European Commission, meanwhile, is rolling out a hugely ambitious package of environmental measures and data centres are firmly in the firing line; the sector must be climate-neutral by 2030, for example.  

The data centre sector accounts for between 1-2% of all global electricity usage which means there is likely to be continued pressure for operators to be more efficient. This may well be partially driven by the customers who will be keen to align with suppliers that share their sustainability values. 

However, given other pressures, will this focus continue unless there is a clear commercial benefit? We think this is unlikely and have been working closely with our clients to deliver solutions that are both sustainable and cost-effective.

Budget pressures

For many, the virus has prompted the need to consider IT resilience, capacity and security in order to deal with demand and change to the working landscape. Given the economic downturn, the fact that less than half of respondents in the Keysource 2020 report are expecting a budget increase is perhaps inevitable. However, will delaying investment in technology-based projects hinder organisations’ ability to rebuild and evolve to meet the requirements of the ‘new normal’?  Will we see those who are prepared to keep investing, reap the rewards while others are left behind? Should government identify IT investment as key to improving the economy and look to make funding more attractive?

Chris Coward, Head of Project Management at Business Critical Solutions (BCS), said:

Apart from the obvious issues that will continue due to COVID-19, two of the biggest challenges facing the industry in 2021 are the post-brexit impact and the ongoing skills shortage.

In fact, the continuing fight for a limited talent pool is set to get worse and there are real concerns that it will impact the sector’s ability to deliver the increasing demand driven in part by changes brought about by the pandemic.

The skills shortage in the industry has been an issue for over a decade with the financial crash in 2008 leading to a lost generation of technical engineers and construction professionals which has been slow to recover. In fact, it has never recovered. Recently, there have been some promising industry initiatives, but many have been put on hold due to the pandemic. Ongoing uncertainty around this year’s A-level results, challenges for first-year university students and a decision by many organisations that taking on graduate trainees and/or apprentices is just not practical has effectively put us back to square one and these decisions will severely impact the future. Despite the uncertainty, at BCS, we have forged ahead with our graduate and apprenticeship programme regardless.  

Given the large numbers of people that have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, is there a case for government-supported on-the-job retraining for those affected to enter sectors like ours where skills are required? Surely this would be a win-win situation? Another suggestion might be to enable university students to fast-track their degrees. I’m sure some students would choose this approach and it could also result in cheaper fees.

The uncertainty around Brexit has, at the very least, been unhelpful for the data centre sector and regardless of whether we have a ‘no deal’ or ‘some kind of a deal’, there are likely to be challenges ahead. Will there be an increase in costs and longer lead in times for organisations purchasing equipment from mainland Europe? Probably. Will this lead to a move towards the UK becoming more self-sufficient and onshoring more of its manufacturing? I hope so.

It is also likely that the UK will need to consider offering tax incentives for data centre operators, much like they have in Ireland. This will bring with it a whole new list of challenges around the UK’s lack of a holistic approach to power supply, planning and its infrastructure.

Finally, we may also need to factor in the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and the resulting threat to the Good Friday Agreement – what might that mean in terms of support from the newly elected American Presidential, Joe Biden, who has Irish heritage, and any trade deal with the US?

Jeff Tapley, EMEA Group Managing Director and SVP Portfolio Management Group, Interxion: A Digital Realty Company, said:

If you had asked this question last year, I don’t think I, or anybody, would have predicted what a tumultuous and challenging year it would end up being for most industries and businesses. Around 20% of small businesses in Europe were closed for weeks during the spring while the data economy thrived – the number of consumers in the region using digital services grew by 14% – a shift we would usually expect to take between two to three years.

However, despite the obvious benefits of having a thriving data economy with strong, open data exchanges, current infrastructure is not fit for purpose. Left unchecked we’re seeing a data gravity effect – the phenomenon of business data attracting more, similar data and services until a business houses so much data that it becomes too much to use or move and becomes a liability, not an asset.

Data gravity may look like a technical matter best left to the IT department, but its negative impacts are felt across the business – from poorer customer service to compliance issues and spiralling operational costs. Data centre leaders in 2021 – myself included – need to be ready help their customers lead large-scale Digital Transformation initiatives, which are impossible if data gravity isn’t dealt with.

We can help them deal with that by offering our customers platforms and infrastructure that allows for connectivity between networks, clouds and providers, ensuring capacity wherever it is needed. By consolidating data infrastructure, you take control and become more flexible – simplifying the delivery of critical technology and services. This is going to be the key challenge for data centre leaders in 2021 as we see more businesses and sectors move to a more digitalised system and expect results on-demand.

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