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Q&A: How data centers can keep up with massive Internet user growth

As Internet user growth stretches current network capacity thin, how can data center planners hit the moving target of future bandwidth needs?

Picture how bad it would look for your company if a salesperson, in the middle of a pitch across the country, can't access her presentation on your servers. Internet user growth is on the rise in the office and on the road, so data centers face a new challenge.

We spoke to Kevin Ressler, director of global product management for the enterprise networks division at TE Connectivity, about this rise in mobility and how data centers must grow and change to avoid falling short of user demand.

Kevin ResslerKevin ResslerKevin Ressler

What does the data center world need to do to keep up with the explosive growth of Internet-connected devices?

Kevin Ressler: Data centers need to support more users with more devices, with more applications, and consuming more content in more places. That's the common denominator.

One of the things that drives the data center is delivering content closer to the user. This leads to more data center gateways in more places to help support that. What it means for enterprise data centers is a combination of internal data centers and cloud solutions that support a sprawling population of fixed and mobile devices.

We have a lot of enterprise users in our own office environment, but we also have a lot of people out on the road meeting with customers. From a connectivity standpoint, we need to make sure users have the same experience, whether they're on the fixed network at the office or out in the customer environment.

I think what you're going to see as part of data center growth is "points of presence," and you need an increased concentration of those than you do today. Those are typically data center gateways, so I think we're seeing a growth in that. And it's part of the driver behind colocation as well. Distribute the content and distribute the support of the devices of your user base to more places.

How do you see the current cable infrastructure -- that is, the phone lines and buried fiber -- holding up against that growth?

More bandwidth in more places means the network must respond with a proliferation of fiber.

Ressler: Let's start with the transoceanic cables and the offshore networks being supported. Consistent with the theme of more users in more places, a lot of the traffic in this global economy is going across the transoceanic and offshore cabling. We actually provide solutions directly into these networks. It's a robust industry. Not just transatlantic, but a number of high-profile projects serving Asia and the growth of [Internet] user population [are] there, so it's additional capacity over existing systems and new cabling systems to support the growth.

In most developed economies, we see a robust fiber infrastructure that connects the major metropolitan areas. But what we're seeing now is the deployment of fiber deeper into fabric networks. One thing that means is fiber to homes, premises and businesses -- again, bringing fiber closer to the user.

Different countries address this in different ways. You may be familiar with Australia's National Broadband Network -- that's a national initiative to drive bandwidth across the user population. Again, different countries do this in different ways.

The common theme is "more fiber in more places." So, in an urban environment, this could mean increased fiber-to-multidwelling unit deployments. What we're seeing in enterprise environments is fiber deployed in applications where copper used to be used. The bandwidth of fiber -- depending on the network -- can provide energy efficiency gains as well.

Whether it's fiber to the home, the enterprise or outside plants, we're driven a lot by mobility. More bandwidth in more places means the network must respond with a proliferation of fiber.

What are a few of the broader trends in the data center right now, and how do they impact the cost of a new build? If we need more data center gateways, we have to have more data centers!

Ressler: Three of the broader trends we in the data center see are agility, availability and efficiency. Agility enables data center operators to quickly and effectively deliver new services to customers and, in the enterprise, it serves more internal business units. Speaking to the cost equation, if you look at the data center electronics -- the routers, switches, servers and storage devices -- these can comprise up to 35% of a new data center build. Another category of products is data center cabling. This only comprises up to 8% of the cost of a new build, but cabling and connectivity can really influence the agility of the network delivered to the active electronics.

Agility means the ability to manage Ethernet and storage traffic on a common fabric -- that's really the goal. People looking to increase efficiencies want to make sure that if they buy cables for the data center today, the same solution will serve their needs as network speeds increase from 10 to 40 to 100 Gb. A very common question from customers is, "What cabling infrastructure do I put in place that will serve the next three generations of the electronics I install?"

The other two themes are availability and efficiency. These used to be separate considerations. Availability was redundancy, and efficiency was synonymous with heat and energy output savings. Some interesting new things we see in the data center try to link availability and efficiency by design and in practice through modular pod designs, containers, preconfigured cabinets and different ways to design, deploy and operate data centers.

These have an impact on construction costs, but really more on the long-term operations expenses of data centers. That net is the solutions that deliver all three are going to gain traction in the data center.

As more companies turn to cloud computing, more data centers will also have to be built. What are some of the concerns with this, and how will hardware have to change to prevent too much of an energy drain?

Ressler: The industry data shows that larger numbers of internal enterprise data centers -- those serving a single organization -- and cloud data centers continue to be built. Interestingly, the fastest growth is for the largest data centers. Also interesting is the fact that these larger data centers are also the most efficient ones. Warehouse-type data centers have really been the forefront of energy saving techniques [such as] air-side economizers and ambient cooling designs that really changed the equation on cooling data centers and resulting in energy efficiency gains.

This thermal approach to efficiency has made a fundamental impact, but there's been a technology change on the hardware side as well -- virtualization. Server virtualization significantly improved data center efficiency, and now we're seeing virtualization move from servers to storage and network devices, so we're going to benefit from those energy efficiency gains as virtualization goes throughout the data center.

As data center hardware becomes more energy-efficient and the software tools are put in place to manage and regulate this, it will go a long way toward keeping data center power consumption on a sustainable path.

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