Utility computing: Real-time is now, really

Utility Computing: Analysts who study it, vendors who sell it, and customers who use it say the combination of ROI and ASAP is undeniable and something every data center manager must consider.

For all you data center managers who didn't think real-time infrastructure (RTI) "mattered," keep this in mind:

Nicholas Carr is talking about it these days.

The author and academic, who infamously asked "Does IT matter?" back in 2003 and questioned the business value of IT, apparently does believe that real-time infrastructure, utility, dynamic, adaptive or on-demand computing (or whatever you want to call it) matters.

"He's bringing attention to it and trying to promote utility computing service alternatives," said Jeff Kaplan, managing director of ThinkStrategies Inc. in Wellesley, Mass.

Utility computing and beyond

Kaplan defines real-time infrastructure as an IT architecture that enables an enterprise to leverage up-to-date information in order to respond quickly to business opportunities while more easily managing IT operations and streamlining critical corporate processes. RTI technologies include systems that can self-configure, self-manage and self-optimise such as those being heavily touted by major vendors such as Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

Like most believers in the pay-as-you-go technology, Kaplan says it offers a viable alternative to the traditional – and expensive – IT systems and software that Carr railed against.

Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. has called utility computing based on real-time infrastructure one of the hottest topics of 2005. Analysts claim companies can use real-time technology to increase their flexibility and agility in delivering IT business services, improve efficiencies, and reduce IT hardware and labor costs up to 30% and 60% respectively. They predict that within the next five years, large enterprises will deliver 25% of application demands from shared sources and get nearly a third of their software from external providers.

Money is time

But data center managers shouldn't be passively biding their time until 2010, waiting to see how the real-time technology market plays out. They need to be using this stuff now, according to Kaplan. And many of them are.

"It's more of a reality than it was a year ago," Kaplan said. He believes that the evolution of technologies that enable more rapid deployment capacity -- blade technology, virtualized storage capabilities, service-oriented architecture and online software services -- have converged to create the perfect storm for real-time in the data center. Real-time architecture is taking advantage of all these technologies to dynamically respond to fluctuating business cycles and to increase utilization, Kaplan said.

"ROI and TCO terms come up here," he added. "Large and small companies are taking advantage of these services to gain competitive advantage and get new initiatives to market faster."

Vendors have responded to users' frustration with the ROI-challenged, traditional software and system models in the data center, where investments in excess capacity can yield 35% or less utilization and often fail to achieve their original business objectives.

Vendors such as CRM software firm Salesforce.com Inc. and talent management company Taleo Corp. of San Francisco, Marlboro, Mass.-based server firm Egenera Inc., and networking specialist Savvis Inc. of St. Louis are all players in the real-time market, as are usual suspects Sun, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and MCI.

Boston-based Softricity Inc. sees the desktop as the next frontier for real-time. The company provides applications to a workstation like the power company provides electricity to a light switch – flip it on when you need your apps. Only you can turn on the Softricity from anywhere at anytime (as long as there's an Internet connection, of course) without bothering with installation hassles and without wondering if one application might break another.

Softricity co-founder David Greschler said that he saw the way real-time technologies were increasing efficiencies in the data center and was inspired to push the same benefits to the desktop.

"Rolling out new applications and updates on the desktop is a painful process," he said. "It's as difficult to manage this environment as it is to manage servers in a data center."

Greschler said that by providing applications on demand, his company is freeing users from their machines and making software as easy to access as any Web page.

"We're making software more like data," he said.

More time for support, services

Rick Mickool, executive director of IS at Northeastern University in Boston, said that Softricity's desktop offering has freed him up to concentrate on other projects.

Before implementing the real-time technology, he was constantly doing regression testing, pushing out software updates, and worrying about configuration conflicts. Not anymore.

He now spends that time focusing on support for more applications, more personalized services and other managerial improvements.

"We're taking baby steps into this, [but] we're proving that it works," he said. His advice to data center managers? Get real time. Now.

"The technology is here, it's usable, and it's providing lots of benefits in data center," he said.

Mickool added that his department funded everything internally from its ongoing IS budget, reallocating money and knowing there would be some savings right off the bat.

"People are seeing the value in the new technology and how it can make us more responsive and more personalized," he said. "It immediately starts to bring benefits."

Mickool added that the reality of a 24/7 world basically pushed Northeastern toward the real-time model. Students already used to shopping online anytime and IMing their classmates expected more than just a nine-to-five college experience and didn't want to be tied to the campus to get their education. Neither did faculty members as they traveled across the globe on their various projects. The university had to be available on-demand. And it's pretty much a microcosm of the "give it to me now" times we live in.

"There's no question that the whole world is heading in this direction," Kaplan said.

This was first published in October 2005

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