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Cloud Thinking

15 November 2009

Software and data storage on demand gives access to information securely from any location, and according to Peter Bowen, the impact will less power, less cooling, less space, less complexity in building design and less cost

I HAVE BEEN IN TECHNOLOGY for nearly three decades now and I have been exposed to innovative technologies over the years. Today’s technology climate is no different. The ICT industry is going through yet another step change with the advent of ‘Cloud’ computing as a viable alternative to traditional locally based application services and demonstrates an upward trend which provides ‘software and storage on demand’ generally from a secure remote purpose built location, ‘Google’ among others have seen the potential for the adoption of this approach and have already made serious inroads to developing purpose built facilities to deliver these services over the internet.
Such services are already available to mobile and home users on a global basis. The trend in the technology evolution is to provide applications and software services to users from a central location, normally referred to as ‘the cloud’. The technology and some services have been around for a number of years but it is blatantly apparent that this is becoming the norm for home and mobile users and is certainly being adopted by business users as a viable alternative to traditional desktop computing.
There are a number of large organisations that are investing substantial amounts of capital into developing business and enterprise services that deliver Software as a Service (SaaS) as a viable commercial alternative to traditional PC based local software applications. Alongside this software on demand is the ability to have centrally hosted storage capabilities that enable organisations to access information securely from any location, be it from home, the office, a café bar or anywhere else that has an internet connection.
In terms of end user devices there is also a trend for the use of netbook, smart phones and thin client internet enabled devices that allow users to login to applications over the web very easily and quickly and with the advent of up and coming 4G and LTE (long term evolution) mobile network connectivity there is certainly a case for using mobile devices with high bandwidth instead of traditional PC’s.
So, what is the impact on a typical organisation?. Well the obvious one is flexibility, but there are also other powerful arguments to consider. If all employees had mobile high speed access to secure remote computing and storage then why have an office in the first place? There are management, organisational culture and social considerations to take into account, but let's consider the concept of having an office building as a meeting place as well as a flexible workspace without the expensive infrastructure for hosting applications and data.
There will be a potential impact on the future design and usage of the modern building. On the face of it there seems to be a major opportunity to embrace this emerging technology approach to leverage some substantial benefits by applying radical design methodology to the modern building, the concept of the ‘empty building’. Traditionalbuildings tend to be very complex in terms of the demands on the internal infrastructures to support the traditional ICT technologies such as desktop PC’s (personal computers), switches, servers and storage devices and various other devices to underpin the commercial operations of the occupying organisation. Typically this infrastructure will require substantial amounts of data cabling, multiple patching centres in computer equipment rooms (CER’s) and secondary equipment rooms (SER’s) across the building, and potentially on site data centre facilities for the higher density equipment users. All of which add to the complexity, size and cost of the building.
On the whole the impact of the traditional infrastructure is that power usage is likely to be high with a requirement for associated cooling on the floor plate in user areas but more so in the dedicated data centre and equipment rooms where most of the heat is generated. To accommodate the cooling requirements the usage of multiple resilient AHU’s (Air Handling Units) and chillers are deployed, again adding to the cost and complexity of the building but which also have an impact on the building design as they take up space that could otherwise be utilised. Even with emerging ‘passive’ or ‘free’ air cooling techniques there are still constraints and challenges to overcome in deciding where to locate chillers and associated plant for best effect.
Allied to this is the requirement for power systems multiple and resilient PDU’s (Power Distribution Units) and related UPS’s (Uninterruptable Power Supplies) and generators in resilient configurations to maintain power to critical IT systems to ensure an organisation can function with minimum downtime. These power infrastructures greatly increase capital expenditure and operational costs and again add to the complexity of the building design and the impingement on space.
Empty buildings
Now imagine the concept of ‘the empty building’ where all IT systems and applications are held remotely and delivered to mobile user devices.There would be minimal data cabling infrastructure, as all that would be required would be connections to wireless access points. Wireless is developing at a pace and in several years time will be as robust as a normal wired switched network. In fact there are implementations of 802.11n that already have the capability of delivering enhanced bandwidth with minimum device contention giving very good QoS (Quality of Service).
As there is very little in the way of cables and no server equipment or switches to host there would be no requirement for CER’s, there would be no SER’s as patching would not be required, and there would be no data centre on site as everything is held remotely. The only requirement would be for a single space to host wireless AP (Access Point) cabling and access point power delivery over PoE (Power over Ethernet) devices. This would be considerably less than in a conventional building. The impact of minimal technology infrastructure is less power, less cooling, less space requirement, less complexity in the building design and less cost.
Now that we have established that it is possible to have a very efficient space, we could investigate the other potential benefits for this new approach. As every user is connected via either wireless or mobile network and can work from anywhere it is possible to design new spaces to accommodate less people, as occupancy would inherently be less than a traditional building. This makes it possible to reduce the building size and the associated project build time and gives the architect more scope and the developer to construct the building as a viable and sustainable project. Users would become more efficient and less time constrained as they would not have to travel to the site everyday as often is the case conventionally, users travelling costs would be reduced.
In conclusion, it seems to be a no brainer to adopt this approach. I have highlighted the following benefits. The building can be smaller, more flexible, built far quicker, cost less from a capital expenditure and operational cost perspective, less complicated design, easier to manage, increased profitability for the developer, meets environmental trends, and is sustainable.
This approach could also be adopted in ‘brownfield’ sites, as legacy infrastructures can be ignored. This gives far more flexibility and choice to potential occupants. As the construction industry strives to reduce costs and introduce sustainable buildings it would seem sensible to at least investigate the impact of a changing technology world and to build in the benefits from day one. Traditionally ICT systems have been effectively retrofitted into buildings as the designs have developed, it may be time to look at the technology first and design the building around the functionality required.
Peter Bowen is Technical Director at Cordless Consultants Ltd. Peter Bowen will be launching the Empty Building research at this months WorkTech09 London Conference. The new study between Cordless Consultants, Pringle Brandon and Turner & Townsend is to be announced at Worktech09. It examines what will be left in buildings if applications, data processing and data storage migrate to data centres as cloud computing takes off, and looks at the benefits to occupiers and developers.

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