Doing more with less: the state of today's data center

Data center managers are being asked to accomplish more and reduce costs, and are responding with various initiatives, from server virtualization and consolidation to automation of routine tasks.

Nearly every initiative data center managers pursue today has a common goal: getting more work done with fewer resources, according to Symantec's second annual "State of the Data Center" report.

Data center managers are being asked to accomplish more and reduce costs, and are responding with various initiatives, from server virtualization and consolidation to automation of routine tasks and cross-training of IT staffs stretched increasingly thin.

IT budgets are still rising at some companies, but may not be keeping pace with the increasing amount of work data centers must perform, Symantec says in a report based on interviews with managers, directors and vice presidents at 644 companies in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Mexico. The companies range in size from 5,000 to more than 50,000 employees, and the median company has 500 IT employees and between 30 and 49 data centers.

"Expectations are rising faster than the budgets," says Marty Ward, director of product marketing for Symantec's data protection group. "The budgets are still rising -- which we found interesting -- but they're not rising dramatically."

Half of the companies say they anticipate funding increases over the next 12 months, while 34% say the budget will stay the same and 16% expect decreases. With a deepening recession, Symantec says "one would expect that this finding will change as companies begin to feel the full effect of the financial crisis."

Most of the budget increases are being taken up by costs such as power, infrastructure and facilities, while discretionary spending is taking a hit, Ward says. Data center operators said their top priority was reducing costs, while the goals of improving responsiveness, service levels and availability were secondary.

The telephone survey was conducted for Symantec at the end of September and in early October by Applied Research-West, a market research firm.

"The IT manager's 'to-do' list is as long as ever," Symantec writes. "Applications continue to grow in number and complexity. Servers remain underutilized. Storage continues to grow but is also underutilized. And disaster-recovery plans -- more important that ever -- are still not fully complete."

Three out of four companies said user expectations are rising gradually or rapidly, while user expectations are falling at only 2% of companies. Six out of 10 companies say it's getting more difficult to meet the service levels demanded by the organization, partly because a large portion of IT staffs are understaffed or have trouble finding qualified applicants for open positions.

Moreover, "having distributed data centers exacerbates the issue," Symantec writes. "Two thirds of the companies believe that each data center location needs its own highly skilled staff." Executives at just one in 10 companies say it's becoming easier to meet service levels.

Staffing woes are being addressed primarily in two ways: outsourcing and training. Nearly half of the companies are outsourcing at least some of their data center tasks to save money and give staff time to focus on other priorities. Training is taking on an increasingly strategic performance, with 78% of Symantec's respondents saying training budgets will rise or at least stay level in the next two years.

Economic turmoil is already forcing many companies to institute IT hiring freezes, and this is forcing IT pros to take on extra responsibilities that go beyond their usual job descriptions, as Network World reported in October.

Virtualization initiatives have brought money savings, with average server utilization rates now at 53%, the Symantec report found.

"It is much improved. I'd say five years ago the average was probably 20%," Ward says. But servers are still underutilized, leaving room for more cost savings.

Symantec also examined the state of disaster-recovery planning, and found good and bad news. Nearly two-thirds of companies report having average, pretty good or excellent disaster-recovery plans for their data centers. The remaining 36% say their disaster-recovery plans either need work or are undocumented, which Ward believes is a high proportion considering that the survey targeting only companies with at least 5,000 employees. "These aren't small companies," he says.

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