New technologies mean shorter server life cycles

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"We don't want to get caught in an environment where we don't have enough resources to run something that's required for business," Nowak says.

To ensure that each of his physical servers is being utilized to its full potential, Nowak has divided his data center's three-year server-replenishment cycle into three separate substages. New servers are assigned to core business tasks, such as e-mail and application hosting, for a maximum of two years and then are progressively "demoted" into backup, development, testing and other less critical jobs for another year. "In the third year, it's out the door," he says.

"Keeping in motion is the key," he says, "always doing something with the infrastructure and keeping it on that tight life-cycle basis."

The end result is that Nowak always has two production environments operating and another one in flux (with servers being selected, built, demoted or decommissioned).

Since the never-ending process is designed to ensure that each server is assigned to the task that most closely matches its capabilities, Nowak believes his data center operates at maximum flexibility and efficiency.

But he also acknowledges that the strategy is both complex and demanding, as well as a big change from the company's traditional practice of simply acquiring and shedding servers whenever management felt it was necessary. "It's basically running, on a daily basis, two infrastructures and then always either planning, building or decommissioning the third one," Nowak says.

Micah Sachs, head of systems administration at Los Angeles-based hosting services provider New Dream Network, has also opted to juggle several server-replenishment cycles simultaneously. This is a move away from his traditional method of simply replacing aging systems whenever he felt that a change was necessary due to operational or market factors.

He believes that the new approach limits his exposure to getting caught flat-footed by a sudden change in technology or business practices. "Generally, we do incremental changes," he says.

Sachs notes that he generally buys servers in small quantities -- "about 100 to 200 every quarter, so that we're not left holding a bunch of [servers] that are obsolete or that we later find are inappropriate for the task." New Dream has approximately 3,000 servers overall.

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