A few years back, IBM ran a commercial in which an executive walks into his company’s data center, only to find a big empty room, and a relatively small modern mainframe humming away in one corner.

Busy, crowded data centers are still around, of course, but increasingly, they may start becoming less and less visible. In recent years, I have spoken with a number of insurance company CIOs who have been actively downsizing their data center footprints – consolidating them from multiple centers into single facilities, and reducing the amount of equipment.

Will the data center someday be obsolete?  Probably not soon, but it’s possible we may start to see less and less of them. Or, it may start to take a different form. That’s the latest prediction from IDC, which says that the new IT – based on cloud – is “having a direct impact on data center construction and remodeling.” The consultancy predicts the total number of datacenters (all types) deployed worldwide will peak at 8.6 million in 2017 and then begin to decline slowly.

This shift will be triggered by a decline in internal data center server rooms starting in 2016 and internal server closets starting in 2017.

However, IDC adds, all other data center categories will continue to grow throughout the forecast period, with the number of service provider data centers increasing much faster. Despite a decline in the number of data centers, total worldwide data center space will continue to increase, growing from 1.58 billion square feet in 2013 to 1.94 billion square feet in 2018. So there will be fewer on-premises centers, and more cloud-based centers.

"Over the next five years, a majority of organizations will stop managing their own infrastructure," explained IDC analyst Richard Villars. "They will make greater use of on-premises and hosted managed services for their existing IT assets, and turn to dedicated and shared cloud offerings in service provider datacenters for new services."

The data center may begin to take on a variety of new forms.  Here are some possibilities:

Zero-footprint data center: More likely for smaller or new insurers. All processing, storage and applications will reside in the cloud. Insurers will turn to providers such as Amazon Web Services, IBM or Microsoft to maintain and provision their infrastructures.

Highly distributed data center: Instead of all equipment and assets in one place, data center functions will be seen across enterprises. There may be cloud resources for some areas, storage maintained within business units and “pooled” for enterprise consumption, and applications close to where they are needed.

Data center in a box: Another trend in recent years has been for data center vendors to package up servers, disks, networking gear and systems software into a large shipping crate, and plug it in to customers’ sites as needed. Everything is right there and ready to go.

Green data centers: Data assets are consolidated into lower-power units in data centers built to consume the least amount of heat and cooling. This is especially appealing to companies with large centers packed with legacy systems and a great deal of local storage requirements.

It also is notable that today’s smartphones and tablets pack almost as much power as a mainframe from several decades ago. Perhaps the data center of the future will ultimately be within a handheld device. That would really be a small footprint.

Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Joe using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at joe@mckendrickresearch.com.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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