For something that started in the 1950s, cloud computing might seem to be late to the buzzword party. In fact, that pervasive, omnipresent trend of today is technically more than 60 years old. In those days, time sharing allowed multiple terminals to share the physical access and CPU time on mainframes. But the vision for cloud was already there: in the 1950s, scientist Herb Grosch predicted that the world would operate on dumb terminals powered by about 15 large data centres.

Commercialised in the 1960s, cloud computing evolved through the early VPNs of the 1990s, virtualisation and the dotcom bubble that fuelled Amazon’s rise to success, until the point in 2008 when Gartner remarked that cloud computing could “shape the relationship among consumers of IT services, those who use IT services and those who sell them.”

It later observed that businesses were “switching from company-owned hardware and software assets to per-use service-based models” so that the “projected shift to computing … will result in dramatic growth in IT products in some areas and significant reductions in other areas.” More recently, in October 2013, Gartner predicted that Cloud Computing would account for the bulk of new IT spend by 2016. Cloud is reaching its apex.

Cloud Confusion

The length of time that cloud has taken to reach this point perhaps accounts for the confusion that continues to surround it. There’s confusion about cloud technology, confusion over IT infrastructure development and now, with the illusion of unbounded capacity in the cloud, confusion about data centre options and their place in the IT strategy.

Public, private, hybrid, on premise, co-located. With so many options and approaches, many mid-sized enterprises are finding it difficult to understand the myriad data centre solutions on the market. Many companies have commenced their IT transformation journey, but the data centre typically continues to be viewed simply as real estate. No longer can there be a single procurement approach. Multi-sourcing is here to stay.

The data centre must become more than that. At the heart of the transformation to the cloud, it needs to become more relevant to the enterprise in supporting the transition from basic virtualisation to its latest stage of evolution: software-defined data centres (SDDC). This means understanding the enterprise IT revolution and the needs of each business.

The goals for businesses moving to the cloud tend to be similar: whether private, public, or hybrid cloud, users seek to increase agility, boost flexibility, reduce time to implement, enable efficient international operations and reduce costs. This does not mean that all companies can be herded in the same direction; they won’t take the same journey in the IT transformation and will have different needs.

A Cloud By Any Other Name

Some industries are more accepting of cloud than others. At one end of the scale, the retail industry tends to be very comfortable with the concept and adoption of cloud and can articulate how it works and its benefits.

At the other, those driven by strict regulatory standards – charity-funded research organisations and legal in particular – are extremely cautious about cloud. A huge disconnect between the business and IT sides of these industries means that to them, cloud is public, out of their control and a security risk. That being the case, the mere use of the cloud word causes ripples even when looking to deploy private clouds. More palatable to the lawyers, partners and research leaders is terminology such as “utilising the benefits of automation and orchestration in an on-premises environment”.

Will Your Data Centre Flex Like Your IT?

Whichever path feels best suited to each business, it needs to be agile, able to burst and ultimately dynamic. As part of the journey to the cloud, CIOs have typically deployed virtualisation to increase the utilisation rates of their owned IT assets, while also outsourcing to “as-a-service” providers to reduce the overall size of the owned IT estate. However, the virtualisation journey can be unpredictable. At the start, companies expect an overall reduction in their owned IT assets but find it difficult to accurately predict by how much.

Whether in-house or outsourced there are data centre costs that require a level of capacity that is almost impossible to foresee and plan for. In addition to the planning, there are times when capacity needs to increase so that new IT can be deployed before older assets are retired. Often, and despite growth in data, the net IT assets shrink as a result of these changes. This can strand power and space capacity and create unrecoverable costs.

Seasonal or campaign-based peaks, such as retail holiday sales, midnight on New Year’s Day for mobile operators and major charity events such as Children in Need create demand peaks. The data centre needs to have the provision to cope but should be flexible enough that the user isn’t paying for that full capacity all the time unnecessarily.

The Next Stage: Software-Defined Data Centres

As businesses continue along the IT journey, milestones they reach include converged infrastructure, private cloud and software-defined data centres (SDDC). The owned IT assets will range from non-virtualised legacy IT, to virtualised private cloud IT and the management and support applications that provide the augmentation, management and security of the SDDC. However, unable to predict the power densities and resiliencies required for those IT assets, planners face having to over-cater for an unknown future.

This leaves the CIO with a specific issue to contend with – how to manage the data centre capacity to provide the right-sized private cloud environment at each stage of the IT journey. It is vital that CIOs consider the attributes they need from a data centre as they continue along their IT journey.

For example, space flexibility with no minimum commitment; the ability to only pay for power used rather than the maximum power capacity; or predictability of the cost of change. One thing is clear – a new breed of flexible data centre must emerge to put the CIO back in the driving seat of the outsourced data centre. Ultimately, what these changes all provide the CIO with is high levels of flexibility and agility.