Blog: Virtualization During Data Center Relocations: Just Say No

I recently was interviewed by Francis Rose of WFED radio in Washington DC. His show, “In Depth with Francis Rose,” focuses on topics of interest to federal IT leaders and professionals. (You can listen to the interview online.)

Now, Francis is not a technology guy so I was curious as to why he was interested in dedicating 20 minutes of his show to data center relocation. Why did he think that was newsworthy? Of course, folks in the know understand that aging facilities are forcing companies to consolidate and relocate data centers all over the country. But why did Francis care, and what did it have to do with the government?

I quickly saw where he was heading. Francis had read an article I wrote about the five pitfalls of data center relocation and how the US State of Oregon managed (disastrously) to fall into every one. Francis wanted me to expand on how IT managers could avoid repeating Oregon’s mistakes.

You can read about all five pitfalls in the article, but I wanted to focus on one in particular because it’s a seductive trap that’s snaring a lot of organizations: thinking about the move as an opportunity to introduce new technologies (particularly virtualization) and methodologies. As I told Francis, we strongly advise against introducing any new moving parts during data center relocations. Doing is so like performing open heart surgery while throwing in a hip replacement on the side. It can be done, but it’s an enormous risk—and one not worth taking. Francis agreed; it seemed like a no-brainer to him.

So why do so many companies do it? They usually do so for two basic reasons:

1. Pent-up demand. When everything in the IT function (including the data center) is working smoothly, there aren’t a lot of CIOs willing to introduce infrastructure changes (or CFOs willing to fund them) unless the ROI is overwhelming. Especially in this economy, the guiding principle seems to be, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Therefore, projects (including virtualization) tend to be pushed off even when they make business sense. Over time, this creates a project backlog—an itch that IT organizations want to scratch.

In the excitement of a data center relocation, the organization discovers a new enthusiasm for IT improvement and innovation. With all its resources allocated to the relocation, the organization convinces itself that the staff, energy, and budget is available to do anything and everything. In other words, it gets to scratch that backlog itch. Instead of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the order of the day becomes, “Let’s take advantage of this focus on IT to fix everything!”

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If you find yourself in a similar place, and the pressure to virtualize is mounting, at least make sure you have the time, money, staff, and expertise to do it right. If you’re not absolutely convinced, my advice is to finish the relocation first, satisfy yourself that your new data center is functioning optimally, and then think about virtualization.

2. Vendor hype. Let’s face it, most vendors know the best time to sell you anything new is when it aligns with changes that are already taking place. That’s the easiest and best time to capture your attention, not to mention your budget. Vendors specialize in taking advantage of any fears and uncertainties you may have to tell you that they have the tools and expertise to make them all go away. So if your virtualization software provider says virtualizing during a relocation is a good idea, and your hardware vendor says it’s a good idea, and the press and the analysts agree (as they often do as they spend a lot of time with and get a lot of their information from those same vendors), then it must be a good idea, right?

Well, not exactly. Performing two complex IT operations at the same time is almost always a recipe for disaster.

If you’re ready to make a move to a virtualized environment, you need to accept that fact that no matter what your vendors say, you will be beginning a complex, resource-intensive project. It’s important to be sure that all your systems will be able to support appropriate service levels throughout the transition. Unless those service levels can be maintained to the business’ satisfaction, it doesn’t matter how smoothly the virtualization initiative goes.

And if you’re also scheduled to relocate your data center at the same time, please, stop and reflect upon the risk you’ll be assuming by attempting to pull off two complex projects at the same time, essentially under a stop watch held by a watchful business.

Me, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Michael Bullock is the founder and CEO of Transitional Data Services, a consulting firm that provides data center design, construction and relocation services for large scale, ultra-high density data centers. Prior to starting TDS, Bullock held executive leadership positions at Student Advantage, CMGI and Renaissance Worldwide.