Will the data centre sector now be compelled to become better regulated and more professionalised by national broadband requirements and national prestige events like the 2012 London Olympics?
Former BT CTO Peter Cochrane's recent appearance before the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications gave heart to those who feel that UK government policy makers do not solicit views often enough from ICT industry insiders who are able to provide informed opinion.
For others, however, Cochrane's summons typified how such government fact-finding exercises are prone to becoming blindsided by expert opinion. For them, technologists of Cochrane's calibre should be sitting on these committees, rather than advising them. This is not to suggest that Cochrane didn't make strong recommendations for ensuring that UK communications are purpose-fit for this decade. However, for big picture completists his viewpoint fell short. One concern that it raised was that by emphasising broadband performance issues around fibre-optic cabling, Cochrane may have reinforced the erroneous notion that UK broadband speeds, the Internet, and Web access factors were just down to cabling issues, overlooking the critical importance of data centres. This "risks putting the cart before the horse, and creating demand before appropriate infrastructure is in place to cope", says Marcus Jewell, UK country manager at switch/router vendor Brocade. "It's worrying that government and consumers seem to believe that broadband speeds are entirely reliant on the wire that delivers the service to the premises – i.e., fibre-to-the-cabinet or fibre-to-the-home."
There is no point in broadband providers promising delivery speeds predicated on the local availability of fibre links if the data centres that will service that connection are not equipped to handle the demands placed upon them, Jewell argues. He says that there are many data centres supporting the UK's digital datacommunications infrastructure that are in need of upgrading and as such are 'bottlenecks' causing performance degradation. And the situation will be worsened by additional data from the growth of newer Internet applications such as streamed video, VoIP (fixed and mobile), server virtualisation (causes a lot of data to be shunted around for mirroring and back-up) and, further down the line, machine-to-machine (M2M) information exchange. Networking generally has been a 'dark art' since the advent of IT, Jewell says. It has also been the main pressure point in any communications infrastructure: "The government needs to wake-up to the urgent need for technologies that do not slow connection speeds at source - or we will risk creating the demand before having the infrastructure in place to cope."
Cochrane's focus on homes and fibre to the Lord's committee "neglected a real and present trend in mobile communications, but more worryingly they ignore the long-term evolution of networks and 4G", Jewell reckons. "If the government is to rise to these new challenges and meet them successfully – as the economy demands – we need a shift in focus from fibre to the data centre."
Part of this refocusing, he suggests, would be a government-administered 'kitemark' data centre standard modelled on the EC energy efficiency labelling standard for domestic appliances, but that is more geared toward gauging that a facility meets a specified baseline of ICT capacity.
Data centre regulation
The select committee's hearings took place amid continued debate around data centres and the part they play in the UK national economy, an importance that will be heightened as they are loaded with increasing quantities of critical data.
The anniversary of the dot-com bubble burst raised the question of whether more immediate state regulation of data centres would have prevented some of the losses this market implosion caused. Conversely, some commentators reckon that the pace at which IT evolves is so fast, and the pace of policy- making so deliberative, that regulation could cause more hindrance than safeguards. "Political will doesn't significantly move things forward," states Germain Masse, VP of data centre operations at OVH. "When it comes to the transformation that our society and culture has experienced since the birth of the Internet, political timing – in other words, the time it takes for political decisions to be made – is far too long compared to the emergence of new products and new consumer usage patterns."
Despite this, questions over whether an unregulated data centre industry is up to this massively critical responsibility that it has assumed (largely by default) sound increasingly compelling. The curiosity is fed by the fact that some of the sector seems somewhat cloaked in mystery.
The leading independent data centre operators are forthcoming about what they do, and how well-equipped their facilities are; but there are many older, less visible data centres about which less is known, both in terms of the equipment and the staff. Issues surrounding the professionalism of data centre personnel are bound to be raised when so much is riding on their integrity, competences, and qualifications. The latest year-on-year survey of data centre professionals by analyst Gartner indicates that theyare wretsling with a range of critical issues (see graph below); repeated cyber-crime and other online threats have added resonance to voiced concern.
Change initiatives, such as the programme to establish a standard data centre professionalism model announced in September 2011 by the Data Centre Council of the ICT trade association Intellect UK in partnership with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), are taking a lead toward addressing some of the key issues here. Elsewhere, guidelines such as the CPNI Best Practice Guide for the Protection of Data Centres are a step toward the establishment of an industry-wide, binding – and possibly globally-relevant – reference model for effective data centre security management. In tandem with the regulation comes the prospect for professional accreditation and certification. Some arguments for this start from the acknowledgement that it is inconsistent not to certify key data centre staff when they are responsible for the welfare of so many areas of professional practice where professional endorsements are mandatory. More plainly put, isn't it concerning that the medical or legal professions' IT requirement might be being looked after by techies with no professional bona fides?
Ashley Davis, a director of data centre operator InfinitySDC, thinks such anomalies are spurs to a larger debate around IT professionalism. "A mechanical engineer typically is already regulated, and [they] may already be a chartered engineer... But an IT [professional] can come from anywhere, and has no real accreditation other than the strength of their CV," he commented in a recent IET Member News interview. The data centres sector "should be a heavily-regulated industry," Davis asserted.
One trend that supports this is the fact that some data centre operator brands are seeking to differentiate with value-added services that in some respects take them toward becoming 'mini-telcos' – and therefore liable to some of the regulatory yoke that the telecommunications sector is subject to.
Another spur toward regulation is the demands placed on the UK's national ICT infrastructures by the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. The Games have – and will – cause scrutiny on most aspects of data centre standards, from processing prowess to energy efficiency, for both facilities that are directly involved in supporting the event as well as those that, whatever their interest in international sporting events, may find their business operations during impacted by it.