What?s powering your cloud?

They say every cloud has a silver lining – and when it comes to ‘cloud computing’ it would be true to say that the potential savings and benefits of switching to the cloud have been well documented for today’s business leaders.

But whether you’re talking about typical software as a service (SaaS), ‘virtual’ networks – or any other web-based ‘cloud’ iteration – in the current rush to the cloud, one thing seems to have been forgotten. All those applications and all that data has to live somewhere -and that’s where physical data centres come into play.

Behind every cloud provider, there’s a data centre. So whether you’re taking advantage of Google Drive or Apple iCloud – or utilising a private cloud infrastructure to store and access your data and programmes – the cloud services you consume are run from data centres with a connection to the Internet.

As a provider to big business users, you may think you know all there is to know about what’s on the other side of the connection. On the other hand, you may not have given a thought to where all that massive data processing and storage takes place.

Because let’s face it, knowing about the data centre infrastructure that sits behind all that cloud power can seem a bit pointless and irrelevant. But that’s where you’d be wrong.

The cost and social responsibility question

Cost is often a primary driver for enterprises making the move to cloud. But in 2007, the US Environmental Protection Agency warned Congress that the power draw from cloud data centres appeared to be doubling every five years. No surprise considering the exponential growth of devices, data volumes and networks supporting our increasingly connected ‘anywhere, anytime’ digital world.

The explosion of digital content, big data and internet traffic means today data centres are one of the fastest-growing consumers of electricity in the developed world. It’s an issue that’s putting data centre operational efficiency into the spotlight. And, since power consumption has a direct impact on the market price of cloud services, it’s something that should interest providers just as much as their customers.

The fact is that most data centre buildings run at a PUE (power usage effectiveness) of 2.5 or higher. Yet a building PUE of 1.20 or less would deliver savings of around £1.2 million, per megawatt, per year. While the overhead gains generated by energy efficiency in relation to service delivery costs are clear, just as important, from an environmental perspective. That’s because this level of efficiency can result in huge savings on carbon emissions – to the tune of 6,000 tonnes that you – or your customers – can potentially be taxed on.

As the density and volumes of data increases, the efficiency of data centre technologies and buildings are set to come under increased intense scrutiny as customers question the green credentials of the cloud services they’re signing up to.

The data security and availability question

The recent hack of Apple’s cloud services which made the private images of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence and others public, brought the security issues of shared services, software and stored information to the attention of the public. But the integrity of data and services has long been of paramount importance to sectors like government and the finance sector that apply stringent requirements when it comes to where their data and cloud services are kept.

There’s good reason for their caution. A data centre needs to offer a highly secure environment that minimises the chances of a physical or digital security breach.

The Uptime Institute’s tier system that is designed to define uptime and measure performance, investment and return on investment, helps us to understand the difference; Tier 4 data centres are considered as most robust and less prone to failures. Designed to host mission critical servers and computer systems, they come with fully redundant subsystems such as cooling, power, network links and storage, as well as compartmentalised security zones controlled by biometric access controls methods. Naturally, the simplest is a Tier 1 data centre that is often used by small businesses or shops.

So, while utilising a Tier 1 data centre might offer an attractive low-cost alternative to a Tier 4 option, it won’t deliver the data resilience or security that’s critical to certain customers. Plus, should a breach occur that represents a reputational brand blow, that’s very difficult to recover from.

If your cloud resides on multiple data centres in multiple locations, each location will need stringent security measures and procedures in place to ensure only those with approved credentials can access stored apps and data. Plus, you’ll need to be certain the integrity of any offshored data can be assured, whatever the changing political circumstances of the territories and locations involved.

The UK government insists the data centres that it uses are on UK shores, and today’s enterprise customers are increasingly concerned about where their data is kept. Also, more and more they expect transparency about the location where their data is processed, as there are some complex legislative, regulatory and ethical issues that need to be considered when it comes to privacy and security. In recent years, the control over stored data sources has gained high visibility in the light of the US Patriot Act.

The issue for cloud providers is how best to manage cost without compromising on security – while safeguarding data/service availability during potential outages or scenarios of escalating or fast-scaling demand. A data centre provider that only meets your current needs won’t be a metric for success in the longer term, but a data centre partner with a proven record of staying ahead of the technology curve will allow for simplified future growth and expansion.

And one final thought. Transferring data between locations takes time and costs money – so there’s an argument to be made for maximising the geographical proximity of data centre locations to customers in the longer term.

Data centres play a key role in the delivery of cloud services. Cloud providers need to ask themselves if businesses care about where their data is held in terms of security and access. What’s more, utilising a highly efficient data centre generates the cost management that providers need to ensure their cloud services are cheaper and have less environmental impact. Finally, to assure long term customer retention and reputational rigour, resilient performance and capacity are also key considerations. Clearly, when it comes to cloud, compromising on the data centres that sit behind the scenes doesn’t pay in the long run.

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