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Five-year prediction: cloud vs. data center

Analysts, tech bloggers and IT managers have been debating the net value of using data centers vs. the public cloud for years now. We’ve seen opinions around business advantages and disadvantages for both, but which will ultimately win the cost war in the future? We went straight to the front lines of IT for answers.

We sat down with Samuel Alt, technical support specialist at Ingram Micro, to get his future forecast. He has extensive, real-world experience with both data centers and the cloud, and his five-year prediction may surprise you.

Everyone's talking about the cloud overtaking data centers. What's your opinion?
The short-term play for many companies is cloud, due to low upfront costs and instant scalability, but I question its long-term sustainability due to cost. As for the landscape five years from now, I actually see a shift back to an energy-efficient, powerful, shrunken form of data centers.

What will hurt the cloud play in the future?
Cost will eventually kill cloud momentum. The cloud appears cost-effective at first, but gets expensive quickly as you scale. Some organizations must store thousands of terabytes—that’s going to be a pain point as the world consumes more data. Cloud bandwidth is expensive. Cloud SQL storage is expensive.

There’s also a lack of control and flexibility in the cloud. I like to see, touch, migrate and own my data. Depending on what you’re using it for, it may be difficult and time-consuming to pull down your data when you want it.

Also, there’s always a bit of paranoia when it comes to someone else hosting your data. You have no idea whether it’s physically residing in Texas, Ohio, China—it could be sitting anywhere.

Why do you think data centers will make a comeback in five years?
I’ll start with my mobile phone analogy—the early consumer wireless phones were huge bricks. Then, they trended toward slimmer models with small screens. Today, they’re massive again, in the form of phablets with big screens, because that’s what consumers wanted all along. Since companies have never stopped wanting control over their data, I think we’ll see a similar return to on-premise data centers, just in a superior, resurrected form.

What will data centers look like in the future?
Smaller, extremely energy-efficient and more powerful. Imagine what people love about the cloud, but in a controllable, on-premise environment. That’s the future of data centers. The ideal scenario is total control over your data, but at a significantly lower cost and without taking up much physical real estate.

What else needs to happen in order to see a shift back to data centers?
Power efficiency is critical. One component that measures this is power usage effectiveness (PUE), which calculates the ratio of total amount of energy used by a data center facility to the energy delivered to computing equipment.

Currently, powering up a data center is expensive, but it won’t always be. Energy-efficient data centers will produce dramatic savings when it comes to power, heating and cooling costs.

What's the tipping point?
The cost of hardware (cooling infrastructure, firewalls, tape drives, etc.) will decrease and the cost of using the cloud will increase. IT managers will balk at the annual cloud spend. Again, pricing will catch up to the cloud as we consume more data.

Going forward, I think that cloud will have a great place in the SMB and small data center market. However, any mid- to large-scale data center will not be willing to change due to a cost perspective.

Can you speak more to the physical size of future data centers?
Data centers will shrink with virtualization. The days of massive racks filled with networking equipment will go away. (Think old IBM mainframes that took up half a building.) Space is money. Real estate is a key reason why companies go to the cloud—with virtualization, that won’t be a factor. Consider how hyperconvergence integrates storage, networking and virtualization all in one box.

In five years, you could run an enterprise from a small closet. In 10 years, from your pocket.