By Dheeraj Nallagatla, Dataflix
Although your retail business may midsize, your data processing needs could be substantial. If this is the case it can pose perpetual challenges in handling information such as invoices, payment history, inventory, internal and external communications, and even social media accounts. What’s the best way to corral all this data in a way that’s accessible, yet secure?
Cloud computing is not the answer for everyone. True, when you outsource data storage and processing, you can get these services without shouldering major costs for extra space and hardware. But for some businesses, the benefits of setting up their own data center will outweigh the convenience of outsourcing. Here’s why:
- With a data center, you maintain complete control over your computing and technology resources.
- Your business will benefit from having an enormous amount of digital storage space and computing power.
- You’ll be better able to prioritize data security.
Variables To Consider
In setting up an on-site data center, there are many variables to consider. They include:
- Space and other resources: A data center can be a vast warehouse with row upon row of humming server racks or as compact as a single server located in a regular office building. A typical data center for retailers will split the difference, with a dedicated building or less often, a dedicated server room, equipped with all of its information technology equipment and a specialized mechanical and electrical infrastructure.
While not requiring access to an impregnable bunker, a data center needs a space built to robust building standards. This is particularly true in locations with an elevated risk for natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. With a purpose-built center, there also will be expenses such as building and labor, engineering and any needed permits.
Retailers that set up their own data centers need to be aware of the considerable initial investment, especially when compared to the monthly subscription fee and relatively small up-front investment involved when opting for a cloud computing option.
- Computer hardware. The amount of dedicated space a data center requires depends largely on the number of server racks retailers need. Most data centers use the 42U form factor for server cabinets, which are designed to accommodate most standardized 19-inch server modules. That means companies need at least eight square feet of floor space per cabinet, so there’s plenty of aisle clearance for easy access to the equipment. A raised floor is essential for under-floor cable management, particularly in larger data centers.
One of the biggest hardware decisions concerns the choice between rackmount and blade servers, both of which are common setups. Although both types are typically designed to fit into a standard cabinet, a blade system needs its own enclosure within that cabinet. Blade-based systems have some significant advantages, including better cable management, more power efficiency and greater hardware density.
A downside of blade systems is a lack of flexibility. Typically, companies are locked into using just one manufacturer for all components. On the other hand, blade systems are ideal in situations where companies need upwards of 24 servers.
Using the Hewlett Packard Enterprise BladeSystem, for example, a single 42U server cabinet could cost up to 64 servers with as much as 128 TB of RAM and 128 Intel Xeon 16-core CPUs. Alternatively, if used purely for data storage, the same server cabinet can accommodate four HPE BladeSystem cc7000 enclosures for a total of 460.8 terabytes of storage (115.2 per enclosure). Most rackmount systems cannot support nearly this degree of density, making them less suitable for businesses in need of large numbers of servers.
- Electrical and infrastructure requirements. A data center’s reliability is vital, since any outage can cost a small fortune and create angry customers. As a result, it’s important to build a solid electrical infrastructure, eliminating unscheduled downtime caused by things like power surges or electrical grid outages.
Being prepared for almost any eventuality is a major obligation for businesses that run their own data centers. Accordingly, be prepared to invest heavily in the electrical infrastructure. While the electrical grid will obviously be the primary source of power, companies also need to install transfer switches that automatically switch power to uninterrupted power supplies, should there be any unexpected disruption to the electrical supply. These systems are designed to bridge power gaps of only 10 to 20 minutes.
Diesel-powered backup generators can provide electricity for many hours, or, if they are refueled, indefinitely. This will require an assessment of the horsepower the data center needs, which will be calculated based on the size of the raised floor area of the server room and the number of cabinets.
- The cooling system. When there are hundreds or even thousands of processors working around the clock, all those billions of transistors generate a considerable amount of heat. A suitable cooling infrastructure is critical for ensuring the hardware keeps operating in optimal conditions.
Top-notch cooling will extend the life of hardware and significantly reduce the risk of failure and consequent downtime. A room temperature of 68 to 75 degrees is ideal, with humidity of 44 to 55 percent.
Typically, data centers typically use specialized cooling systems rather than the standard HVAC systems used in normal office environments. That means encountering terms such as computer room air conditioners (CRACs) and computer room air handlers (CRAHs). In most cases, these cooling systems consist of a fan for moving cool air into the room and another fan acting as an exhaust system to remove the warmer air.
Other standard procedures for keeping data centers cool include using perforated floor tiles, aligning overhead cooling ducts in accordance with the server cabinet configuration and keeping lights off when the room is not occupied.
The environment must be pristine, as well. Some data center operators go so far as to disallow materials such as cardboard in the room in order to reduce dust buildup.
- Security and accountability. Strict security for data centers is a must in order to protect sensitive data as well as all that expensive hardware. Thieves can target data centers physically as well as digitally, so round-the-clock security is essential.
Access to any data center should be strictly limited, since most employees will never have any reason to enter it. Security measures may include key card access and logging all entry information. Proper on-site monitoring of the premises will be just as important as the digital tools used to protect data against security breaches, hacking attempts and malicious software infections.
- Operating systems and software. Most retailers use a combination of Linux- and Windows-based systems. They also make extensive use of server and desktop virtualization to more efficiently distribute computing resources, such as storage and processing power, into logical blocks for greater efficiency. For example, a client computer in the office might access a virtualized desktop environment that is hosted on one of the servers, while more powerful servers will be able to host multiple virtualized desktops simultaneously.
Virtualization plays a key role in data center computing, since it allows businesses to more efficiently allocate different hardware resources to different tasks. This can reduce running costs, minimize heat buildup and ultimately make better use of your available resources. Also, should one of the physical servers fail, the same virtualized desktop will be immediately accessible from a redundant machine.
Microsoft Windows might be the world’s most popular operating system for consumers and office workstations and terminals, although supercomputers and massive data centers prefer to use Linux. The Windows Server 2016 edition can be ideal for highly virtualized data center environments where computing tasks are largely defined by software rather than hardware.
Data Security As A Priority
Building a data center is no small task and may be beyond the scope of most midsize retailers. In addition to the logistical factors involved, the financial and other resources required can be substantial. An initial investment can range from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars, depending on real estate and other variables. Nevertheless, if the top priorities of the retail business include access control, security and the need for customization for data processing, having your own data center may well be the best option.
About The Author
Dheeraj Nallagatla is founder of Dataflix, a professional services company that delivers data, analytics and AI solutions to drive growth and opportunities. With extensive industry expertise, the company uses cutting edge platforms to accelerate delivery, drive innovation at scale and enable data-driven business transformation. For more information please reach Dheeraj at www.dataflix.com/dheeraj or www.linkedin.com/in/nallagatla.