All sizes and types of organisation are under increasing pressure to meet customer expectations as digital transformation requires a completely new approach to the world of business. Companies across all industry sectors need to re-evaluate their inter-related data centre and IT architectures to ensure that today’s digital consumers receive the best possible experience whenever, wherever and however they want to interact.
A rapidly changing landscape
Mobility, agility, scalability, flexibility, speed – these are some of the main watchwords of a truly digital business. In order to achieve these objectives, companies are no longer able to carry on doing business as normal. They are having to understand how their customers – actual and potential – want to make their purchases in a world of mobile devices, 24x7x365 websites and social media. This doesn’t mean that traditional business practices are no longer relevant in the digital age; rather, that such practices need to be examined in the light of the many technological developments that are the driving force behind digital transformation. Technological developments that make possible whole new ways of doing business. Technological developments that need to be seen not so much as a threat but offering many new opportunities.
In simple terms, the world of physical business is being augmented by virtual or online business. Bricks and mortar businesses have been joined by clicks and mortar companies. Many organisations which, historically, traded from physical premises have added an online offering, so their customers can either visit a shop and make a purchase or go online to the company website and buy what they want.
Plenty of physical businesses which have not reacted fast enough to the rise of the online world have gone out of business. High streets up and down the UK bear testament to such companies. Often, they have fallen victim to the rise of web-only companies, who have few of the overheads and none of the location ‘restrictions’ of a physical business. However, plenty of businesses have been able to abandon their physical locations and re-invent themselves as web-only businesses.
In summary, digital transformation is, in the short term at least, extremely disruptive. There is no certainty as to how far the physical will be replaced by the virtual when it comes to business. However, there is the certainty that companies which ignore the technologies that underpin digital transformation will struggle to remain in business as their competitors leverage the benefits on offer from recent developments.
Digital transformation requires firm foundations
Nowhere are the dilemmas of digital transformation more apparent than at the foundational level. That’s to say, businesses who wish to embrace the opportunities of digital transformation have to understand the importance of having an optimised data centre and IT infrastructure in place. Only once this has been established (and, moving forward, constantly updated) can the digital initiatives built on these strong foundations be sure to succeed.
For example, it’s all well and good to offer your customers real-time access to chat with a customer service representative online, but if each question and answer exchange takes several minutes, because of slow network speeds or, worse still, crashes as too many customers seek to interact with your company, it might have been better to have never offered the service in the first place.
Or, an employee comes up with an idea for a great new application which has the potential to increase sales dramatically across your existing customer base, as well as attracting many new customers to your business. Frustratingly, the data centre space and IT infrastructure required to support the development of this new application takes several months to procure and provision. Nine months later, the ‘brand new’ application might finally be ready for launch, but it’s been overtaken by one or more of your competitors who would seem to have spotted the same opportunity and were able to bring an application to market within nine weeks, rather than nine months.
Digital transformation is all but impossible without the right data centre and IT infrastructure.
Enter the Cloud
One of the major advantages that the new breed of what might be termed ‘digital only’ businesses has is the fact that, when it comes to data centre and IT infrastructure, they have no legacy assets which need to be upgraded, re-purposed or, most painfully, abandoned, long before they have met their intended payback timeframe.
Cliché or not, it’s possible for someone starting a business today to own no data centre infrastructure and the very minimum of IT equipment. This is in large part due to the development of cloud computing and managed services. IT software and hardware can be accessed via third party providers and paid for on a monthly basis. The expensive capital investment in a data centre plus IT infrastructure, which is a financial burden on a business from day one, has been replaced by what seems to be an attractive, potentially fixed, much lower monthly fee which provides access to all the IT resources required for a business.
So, not only can digital businesses exist without paying expensive rent and rates for shop/customer-facing premises, they can also access data centre and IT resources at a fraction of the cost of building, owning and operating these resources themselves.
Furthermore, the Cloud model allows access to IT resources which would be unaffordable to many businesses if they had to purchase the required software and hardware assets themselves. For example, in the traditional business world, an organisation looking to develop a new application would have to purchase and/or provision the necessary data centre and IT infrastructure to support such a project. Not only would this be time-consuming (as referenced above) but also expensive. Depending on the investment required compared to the likely return, a project might not make it off the drawing board.
In the Cloud world, the required IT resources could, in effect, be hired for the duration of the project, costing comparatively little. If the project was successful, then the new application could be supported via the Cloud, in a colocation data centre or on-premises. If not, then a relatively small amount of money would have been spent, especially when compared to the investment required to develop a project completely in-house, with the risk that the required, significant IT asset investment might be wasted.
A whole new world of possibilities?
While the first question one might ask anyone starting a business today is: “Why would you possibly want to own any data centre or IT assets?” the reality is that the vast majority of organisations in existence today have what might be termed ‘legacy issues’ to address. These legacy issues include the traditional business model that requires physical shops or offices in various locations – close to the customer; the traditional mind-set of many of the employees who are maybe reluctant to embrace what they see as the threat, rather, than the opportunity, of digital transformation; and the existing data centre and IT infrastructure which is, almost certainly, relatively ill-equipped to address the demands of digital business – the requirements for mobility, agility, scalability, flexibility and speed.
While it is not the purpose of this ebook to consider either the physical/virtual business conundrum or the need to ensure that employees are committed to the digital transformation process, it is worth noting that any plans to ‘go digital’ need a radical re-evaluation of every aspect of the business. This process might be painful and might lead to some tough decisions having to be made, but the alternative – to do nothing or very little – invites disaster as smarter, more agile competitors adapt to the changing demands of their customers much more quickly.
When it comes to considering the way forward in terms of data centre and IT infrastructure, there is a strong case to be made for what has been termed the ‘Hybrid Cloud’ model. The bravest route might be to abandon ownership of data centre and IT assets and to head straight for colocation and the Cloud, but the reality is that such an approach cannot be achieved overnight, and certainly not while running your business. Shutting down for six months or longer, to completely re-engineer your organisation, would be ideal but, of course, your customers won’t be prepared to wait for you!
And so we arrive at the Hybrid Cloud. A mixture of on-premises data centre and IT assets, owned by an organisation, is supplemented and/or gradually being replaced by outside data centre and IT resources – colocation data centres, Cloud and managed services.
The on-premises data centre and IT assets might not be the fastest, most agile, scalable or flexible, but they will do a job running many of the business applications – at least until such applications can be migrated to a more optimised environment. This might involve moving the physical IT assets on which applications run into a colocation facility, where a dedicated data centre owner/operator will provide a modern, secure environment that compares favourably with the older, on-premises facilities. Or, it might mean that an application is migrated into a Cloud environment, running on assets provided by a hyperscaler or other Cloud provider. Or, it might mean that an in-house application is simply retired and the same application is accessed via a managed services provider.
Making the right choice
Long term, for all but the largest of companies, accessing external data centre and IT resources is likely to make the most sense both financially and in terms of providing access to the very latest technology solutions.
Take the following example. An organisation wants to run a Big Data project, using high performance computing (HPC) infrastructure, to do some detailed analysis and cross-referencing of a couple of the company’s databases, with the objective of identifying some new business opportunities and, ultimately, developing one or more new customer applications.
Taking the in-house, on-premises approach, the organisation has to build-out some new data centre resource – whether in an existing facility or by acquiring a new physical building asset. This space has then to be provisioned with the necessary data centre infrastructure – power, cooling, cabling and the like. Once this task has been completed, modern physical servers and storage have to be acquired and installed. This process will have taken considerable time and investment, and that’s before the Big Data project has been run.
Wind the clock forward, and the project has been run. Regardless of the outcomes for the business, there’s now some expensive, extra data centre and IT resources which will be sitting idle. There a no more HPC projects on the horizon.
If the above project had been approached using a colocation facility, then the acquisition and considerable expense of provisioning new data centre resources could have been avoided. The newly acquired servers and storage could have been installed in the colocation facility in no time at all and the HPC project run much faster and at much less cost than the on-premises approach.
Taking the Cloud or managed services approach, the organisation would have had to invest in neither data centre nor IT infrastructure. The Big Data HPC project could have been run entirely in the Cloud or via a managed service.
Best-of-breed has to be the objective
You flick the light switch and the light comes on. You turn the tap and water flows. You don’t worry about how the electricity was generated at the power station or the network which has brought it to the the switch or the process that has brought the water from a reservoir, through some pipes, to your tap. Similarly, in the utility computing model, IT resources will simply arrive whenever and wherever they are required – whether that’s at a city centre office between normal working hours or via a mobile device at midnight in a remote location.
This might be the long-term dream/goal, but for now, businesses have to decide when and how to provision and access their data centre and IT resources, with the ultimate objective being the creation of an optimised, customer-centric environment.
Today’s consumers expect speed and quality of delivery – whether it’s a pizza, the latest movie download, booking a holiday, or purchasing some shoes. Data centre and IT infrastructure needs to optimise these transactions and interactions, not be an obstacle to their fulfilment. Websites crash, customers go elsewhere. Downloads take longer than anticipated, customers go looking for a faster download.
Set against this digitally demanding environment, businesses need to understand how they can best meet the requirements of their customers (both within and outside the organisation). Edge computing, IoT, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, augmented and virtual reality, DevOps, quantum computing…one, several or all of these rapidly developing technologies might be crucial to the ongoing success of a business. Without the right data centre and IT infrastructure in place, the likelihood is that you’ll either be unable to leverage these new technologies, or only access them in a very limited, slow fashion – just as bad.
We started by outlining some of the major characteristics of a digital business: mobility, agility, scalability, flexibility, speed.
Mobility: your employees will want to access their applications wherever they are on whatever device they are using; your customers will want to access your website wherever, whenever and however.
Agility: Your business needs to move quickly to spot new trends and to develop applications and products and services to meet new demands. And these demands may come and go quickly.
Scalability: Infrastructure will need to grow and continue to grow seamlessly (without the need for a disruptive forklift upgrade) to meet employee and customer demands for fast, reliable access to company resources.
Flexibility: it’s the Christmas rush, you’ll need to make sure that your data centre and IT resources can cope with the seasonal demand; or you’re launching a new product, and there’s likely to be extra website traffic for a few weeks, and maybe you’ll need to think about where and how customers can access the website – one centrally hosted location, or multiple, edge locations.
Speed: Your employees will grow frustrated with slow applications; worse still, they may not have any customers if the speed at which they can access your products and services takes too long – they’ll simply go elsewhere.
If your in-house data centre and IT resources are large enough, flexible enough and modern enough to meet all of the above demands placed on your business by your customers, then congratulations, you are incredibly lucky, well-funded and well-resourced.
Whatever the size and state of your existing data centre and IT infrastructure, there’s every likelihood that, in order to stay relevant to your customers and to compete successfully in this digital transformation era, you’ll need to access more and more external resources. That’s not an admission of defeat, more a realisation that any truly optimised data centre and IT environment will be a mixture of on-premises, colocation and Cloud and managed services. Some applications and data sets will sit comfortably within your own infrastructure, others will be obvious candidates for the colocation approach, and the Cloud (or multiple clouds) and managed services will be the best fit for still others.
Still not sure? Well, consider what might be termed the ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ argument. In our private lives, we tend to be able to work out what mode of transport makes most sense for any particular journey we wish to undertake. Short distances can be covered on foot, on bicycle, motorbike or car. Cars or motorbikes might still be an option for longer journeys, but the train also comes into play. And for the really long journeys, yes, it’s still possible to drive, but trains and planes are likely the preferred method of transport – maybe even a ship. Cost, speed, comfort…a whole host of considerations come into play before we leave the front door. But nobody would think of flying two miles to their office, nor would someone cycle from, say, London to Sydney if they had to be there in 48 hours!
Substitute human transport options for what are in effect data transport options and it should quickly become clear that the idea that one-size fits all is ridiculous. A Hybrid Cloud model is the only logical, sensible approach to digital transformation.