by Stephanie Overby

This Data Center Has Seen It All

Jan 30, 20133 mins
Data CenterLegal

Avnet’s IT facility in Phoenix has evolved over 25 years to handle petabytes of data, absorb acquisitions and cut cooling costs

When Brad Kenney joined the IT group at Avnet in 1987, the electronics distributor’s newborn data center was populated by mainframes, data capacity was measured in gigabytes, and the company owned five servers.

Twenty-five years later, Kenney is vice president of enterprise infrastructure and that data center houses 1,700 servers, maintains 1.2 petabytes of data, and is cooled by a cutting-edge, environmentally friendly HVAC system.

The Phoenix data center’s history highlights some of the tremendous technology changes over the years. “[In 1987] we had nine megabytes of bandwidth per second, and it cost the company $500,000 a year,” says Steve Phillips, Avnet’s senior vice president and CIO. “You can get that on your 4G smartphone today. And no one’s spending half a million dollars for it.” (Today the data center supports bandwidth of 2.2 gigabytes a second.)

It’s also a reflection of Avnet’s corporate growth. Over that last quarter century, Avnet’s data center has scaled up as the company went from $1.5 billion in revenue and 9,500 employees to $25.7 billion in revenue and more than 17,000 employees. Over the past year alone, Avnet has acquired and is integrating 14 companies into the IT fold.

Yet as data center capacity has increased 30,000 percent, power consumption is just three times what it was in the 1980s, thanks in part to recent energy-saving initiatives such as virtualization, a new data-storage-management system, a script for system hibernation, green lighting and a cooling system that uses air from the Sonoran desert.

Those moves are projected to save $18 million annually and avoid a multi-million dollar power build-out. Some of those savings are reinvested in Kenney’s group. “That makes it a constant point of focus,” says Phillips. “They can see the benefit that they get if they reduce that power bill.”

While green technology has advanced, other issues–like managing storage demand–remain tricky. “The cost of storage has gone down over the years. But there’s a tremendous need for data, and we have to be good about how we manage that,” the CIO says. Demand is only increasing as employees use more video, says Phillips.

For now, it’s more cost-effective to keep storing everything, says Phillips, but eventually Avnet will have to deal with purging the data stores.

At a time when many think of IT infrastructure as a utility, Phillips confidently calls his data center a strategic asset–one that he’s not likely to outsource anytime soon.

“There are very good reasons other companies treat infrastructure as a commodity,” says Phillips. “To me, the value of a data center is not in the hardware or the software. It’s in the people behind it. And we think the people that care most about the Avnet data center are Avnet employees.”

That doesn’t mean the heat is off the infrastructure group in the future.

“It’s going to be a big challenge. All companies need to be efficient,” Kenney says. “The technology will continue to change and the cloud is going to continue to evolve. We’re going to have to continue to find new and better ways to be efficient, otherwise someday it will make strategic sense to partner with someone else.”

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