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Data Management

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The Small Revolution of the Data Center

In the never-ending search for more effective and more efficient ways to process their workloads, financial services firms are rethinking how -- and why -- they build data centers, turning traditional data center models on their heads.

A small revolution is taking place in the world of data centers. As financial firms search for more-effective ways to process their workloads, they have been rethinking how -- and why -- they build data centers.

For firms like JP Morgan, that has meant turning old computing models upside-down. "In the legacy model, you used to build an application and you would create the infrastructure to accommodate it," says Peter Ahrens, managing director and chief technology officer at New York-based JP Morgan. "So the applications themselves created the infrastructure design."

In the new model, the bank builds the infrastructure, and the application is designed to fit the existing environment, Ahrens explains. "The application is less customized, but it's available on demand. And it's cheaper," he adds.

One of the biggest challenges firms traditionally face when they plan a new multimillion dollar data center is that the facility often represents a 10-year investment, and they must try to envision their power, server and storage needs for the next decade before they start building. But with technologies and storage and data requirements evolving so rapidly, current needs may differ wildly from what a firm will require in just a few years.

"We would historically have built or provisioned data centers on the basis of things we knew at one point in time," Ahrens relates, adding that engineers would have planned for a specific amount of rack space, storage and cooling, and electric distribution would have been consistent with what they knew at that time. "But today," he says, "some dynamics are changing."

And they are changing more and more rapidly. For example, the overall mix between the number of servers and storage capacity has shifted, Ahrens points out. The power of servers today means firms can run fewer in the data center than historically, he says. Meanwhile, use of storage has been multiplying. "Five to eight years ago, you would have had a small number of storage devices and a large number of server racks," he comments. "Today the trend is toward more space consumed by storage and less by server racks."

Other traditional assumptions about the data center that have been turned on their heads include power requirements. "Some new technologies require far more power," Ahrens says. "Even if you have room on the floor, you may [no longer] have adequate power or cooling to run devices in that location."

Building Flexibility

While JP Morgan, like most major Wall Street firms, would once have built large facilities according to its expected future requirements, it is now building more-flexible data centers in what Ahrens calls a "pod-like" fashion. "In a couple of recent acquisitions, we built a large facility and put a large shell over it," he says, explaining that the bank builds out one pod, or room, in the facility at a time. "We're trying to match up our investment stream more closely to when we need it -- in other words, to only spend money when we need it.

"Our business drivers are, 'Don't spend money and build stuff until you need it,'" he continues. "And by doing that, you are better able to build the pods to the specs of what you require." For example, as JP Morgan builds out a current pod, the firm's engineers might focus on the fact that power density and floor loading will need to be designed more for storage needs rather than server requirements, Ahrens explains.

In addition, like other capital markets firms, JP Morgan has been busily consolidating its existing facilities. "We are reducing the number of data centers we have. And we will be building larger facilities with more expansion capability, rather than having many facilities scattered around the place," Ahrens reports.

Further, JP Morgan is adapting to changes in offsite backup technologies, he adds. "Ten years ago, when we designed [data centers], we assumed a large silo capability," Ahrens says, meaning each department would have its own dedicated backup hardware and space. Today, partly driven by security issues as well as by cost, scalability and other business-driven decisions on where to house a firm's workload, a lot of backup capabilities are centralized and housed in facilities that have been purpose-built for backup itself, he says.

Virtualization Is Here to Stay

As firms search for more-efficient ways to run their data centers, virtualization has emerged as a leading best practice. In 2007, Citi virtualized 10 percent of its U.S. IT environment, according to Jack Glass, the bank's director of data center planning. By the end of 2009, that figure was 30 percent.

"We look for physical servers with low utilization and collapse them onto one physical box," Citi's Jason Kutticherry, VP of critical systems, says. "Over time, as applications are redeveloped at a company like Citi, which has six strategic data centers in North America and 20,000 servers, older servers may just sit there. Over the last couple of years, we've been decommissioning legacy servers."

Decommissioning servers and deploying them in a virtual environment, says Glass, may sound easy -- "like low-hanging fruit." "But having lived through it," he continues, "it's not easy; it's not obvious. It takes a lot of hard work to identify, trace down and find the right documents to show that a server can be powered down. You can't be cavalier about it."

Challenges aside, Glass tells Wall Street & Technology, "the benefits can be tremendous." Decommissioning servers from one site alone last year yielded Citi a 10 percent savings in energy consumption, he points out.

The Host With the Most

Meanwhile, Wall Street firms, including JP Morgan, increasingly are showing interest in hosted applications. Peter Nabicht, executive vice president of Chicago-based Allston Trading, which colocates in Telx's data center, says that while his firm will never outsource trading, it is looking at outsourcing other computing areas.

Melanie Rodier has worked as a print and broadcast journalist for over 10 years, covering business and finance, general news, and film trade news. Prior to joining Wall Street & Technology in April 2007, Melanie lived in Paris, where she worked for the International Herald ... View Full Bio

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