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EXCLUSIVE – Adopting a long-term, strategic approach to building and maintaining data centres

Tell us about your role as CEO of CDCs. As CEO, I manage the day to day business affairs of the company and make sure we’re on track in keeping our clients happy. But the big focus is on growing the business, attracting new clients and retaining our existing clients. With all of the disruption that’s happening in both government and the industry generally, there are enormous opportunities and enormous change. It’s a very, very exciting time to be involved. What were some of the initial challenges in establishing CDCs? We’re still a very young company and very successful. We’re only around 8 years old and we are already one of the largest owners and operators of data centres in Australia.

The challenge of a start-up is that the data centre industry is highly capital-intensive. That’s one of the reasons why we took a modular approach to building our data centres. It is a more efficient use of capital. The financial side, raising and accessing capital was the biggest challenge in getting the business up and running.

What are your thoughts on innovation with regards to the government’s digitalisation process? Innovation is a word that’s probably been overused but I firmly believe that the Australian government is very much in front of the curve, with regards to its commitment to digital transformation.

There have been a few rough starts but I think things are getting on track. The agencies are undertaking a lot of initiatives on their own to create the outcomes that the government is looking for. Are you seeing greater collaboration between government agencies, with regards to sharing and managing of data? The collaboration is at an unprecedented level. When I first started working with government, all of the agencies acted very independently. Over the past 8-9 years, those barriers have eroded and now I see an enormous amount of collaboration, which has resulted in huge benefits.

The sharing of service delivery, infrastructure and general shared services, the sharing of data and reduction of data silos has been very beneficial.

Security is obviously very important when you are dealing with government data. So as someone who has experience running data centres for governments, what advice or tips would you give to governments looking to make their data centres more secure? Once again, I think the Australian government is very mature in this space. I believe that consistency is important. Having the same standards across governments is very important.

The Australian government has very good standards around physical security, information security. Any kind of information supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So, if you don’t have standards across government, then suddenly agencies that are doing everything right could be left in a vulnerable situation thanks to agencies that are lagging. A consistent and standardised approach to all of the different components that go into securing one’s very important citizen and government data, is super important.

There’s quite a bit of talk on hybrid environments. Where would data centres fit into the increasing demand for cloud? What do you think the landscape will look like in 4-5 years? There’s an unprecedented and inevitable move to cloud in some form. But cloud comes in lots of different flavours. When people talk about cloud, they are often talking about public cloud. Public cloud absolutely has a role to play in the ongoing sustainability of service delivery and government services.

What I also see is emerging hybrid configurations, with a combination of private and public cloud. Agencies are able to deploy services faster and capability to citizens and also to other agencies in a more private way that gives the decision makers the comfort that they need. In terms of workload, it will be “horses for courses”. Some workloads will be more suited to the public cloud, others will move to private, government-only clouds. The latter could be provided by the same public cloud providers but in a more secure, customised fashion. On top of that, agencies will do a bit of computing themselves. I don’t think that’s going away entirely. But then on top of all of those different platforms, the really exciting thing is what software as a service type solution be delivered across each of those various underlying platforms and so that’s what I think is the great opportunity, software as a service offering that is more customised.

For example, software as a service offering in an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) space: SAP meets 80% of the vast majority of government requirements, which then means that only a small amount of customisation is available. And these types of solutions can be turned on and off as required and that’s only financially viable if you’ve got the underlying platforms in place and the right mix of platforms for the right workloads at the correct point in time.

Which kinds of services will go with cloud and which will stay with data centres? The temporary requirements, at lower end of the security band and with high public access, are more suitable for public clouds. ERP systems and records of government, involving more permanent workloads, will be predominantly delivered via existing arrangements. What is the major concern that you see right now regarding data centre capacity? When I look at the data centre industry, the thing that sort of strikes me is that the vast majority of data centres that have been built over the last 10-15 years are very inflexible and incapable of adapting to changing technology over time. Nobody really knows what the technology is going to look like in 1 year, 2 years or 5 years from now. Yet the underlying data centres need to be fit for purpose for 10-20 years to provide a return on investment. Is there anything that can be done with those old data centres, which are not able to keep up with technology? Nothing of significance without massive disruption. So in an old data centre, to make it really fit for purpose, it almost has to be gutted to shell and re-started from scratch. With existing customers depending on such a facility, it’s not viable to do that and interrupt operations. That’s why the approach we have taken is using granular, modular blocks that are infinitely adaptable in a LEGO-like way to change in technology. Sections of the data centre can be isolated and reconfigured infinitely to adapt to changing capacity or technology demands, with any interruption to the overall data centre.

It is much more cost-effective to build, run and operate data centres in that manner and it’s also more customer-friendly. You mentioned at our breakfast dialogue that redundancies should be moved from hardware to software. Could you explain how that could be done and what kind of role is that going to play in data centres going forward? Historically, redundancy and resilience has been built into ICT hardware platforms. Particular workloads were tied to particular physical devices. Even if you had high level of virtualisation, the virtual machines were linked to physical instances of hardware. So, you needed multiple units of hardware for one workload or one application to be robust and resilient.

In the future, I believe resilience, redundancy and business continuity requirements would be elevated to the application level. Applications within the data centre would seamlessly move across multiple hardware and virtual server instances. That means that you can have multiple hardware failures without any impact on application availability.

There was discussion during the Dialogue about the geographical location of data centres and the problems with situating them in more conducive kinds of climates due to connectivity and latency issues. Do you think data centres will become more localised or be more clustered in certain parts of the world?

Some countries have actually legislated to protect their own data centre industry, like Germany, suggesting that Germany companies and all citizen data remain exclusively within Germany. That obviously puts restrictions on what’s possible. Disadvantages in terms of climate, high temperatures and high humidity will be difficult to offset. Greater consolidation in locations that are safe, with strong rule of law and a stable political environment and are not exposed to environmental risks, along with nimble, edge-computing could be a solution to a lot of the challenges. But that would require leadership and decision makers make some big calls and have a very long-term view.

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