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What is a Data Center? Everything You Need to Know

The definition of a data center has shifted over time. Learn how data centers have evolved from server rooms, to colo, to cloud, and find out the latest trends.

This guide was updated on July 22, 2020.

The definition of a data center has evolved significantly over the past few decades. Today, data centers are both physical and virtual infrastructures that centralize an organization's business-critical applications, information, equipment and IT operations. The role of a data center is to store, manage and disseminate data for an organization as part of its daily operations. In this post, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about data centers.

Data Center Basics

Any business or government entity that generates or uses data will need a data center on some level in order to meet the needs of the organization and its members and customers. And those data needs will only grow in the future. It is anticipated that humans will generate 40 ZB of data per year by 2020. All these data points require storage solutions.

Here’s a quick overview of the most important features of modern data centers:

Data Center Components

An effective data center includes multiple components: facility, infrastructure, equipment and operations staff.

  • Facility. Your data center facility is the physical space that houses your equipment and infrastructure. From efficient use of space to ensuring optimal security, keep equipment cool, and reducing energy consumption, there are many elements to consider to keep your data center functioning at peak performance.
  • Equipment. While the term "data center" is singular, a data center is composed of a number of elements and pieces of equipment, including routers, switches, storage systems, servers and more.
  • Operations Staff. Of course, you will need someone to manage your data center. Hire experienced, knowledgeable staff. One key consideration is to implement a permissions system, restricting access to certain areas to only those who need it. Requiring sign ins and badges can also be a helpful way to track and monitor activity.

Data Center Equipment

Here are some of the key pieces of equipment essential in any data center:

  • Routers. These devices direct traffic over your network, sending data between devices. Shop Now.
  • Switches. Network switches are also used to connect devices to your network via a physical cable connection. Switches offer added layers of security and control of how data is transferred. Shop Now.
  • Storage Systems. Of course, you need some means of storing all of the data you are managing. Flash Array Storage systems are commonly used, and many companies are now leveraging Hybrid Cloud Storage solutions as well. You should also be sure to make a plan for Data Backup and Recovery to minimize loss in the event of an unforeseen incident.
  • Servers. Servers are essential data center equipment to manage network resources. There are many options to consider, from rack-mountable servers and tower servers to blade servers and more.
  • Cooling Equipment. Without proper temperature management, data centers can heat up quickly, leading to overheating, equipment damage and downtime. Make sure you have the proper cooling systems in place to prevent overheating. Shop Now


Types of Data Centers

There are three main types of data centers: managed data centers, colocation data centers, cloud data centers. Let’s take a closer look at each:

Managed Data Centers

Data centers have been around since the invention of computers in the late 1950s. Back then, one supercomputer might have been comprised of an entire data center. But as computers got smaller and data processing needs got bigger, multiple servers were networked together to increase processing power and share information. These server farms can feature tens, hundreds or thousands of servers stacked together to provide data storage, backup and recovery, networking and data management services.

A managed data center may be managed in-house or completely outsourced to a third-party to manage their data center needs.

Colocation Data Centers (Colos)

As data needs grew and computing became more advanced, more trends emerged. Instead of building and maintaining a data center in house, in the late 1990s, companies began to rent servers at co-location facilities (also called colos) to reduce the overwhelming cost of keeping everything onsite. With this shared data center model, it made sense to grant companies virtual access instead of physical access to various organizations and personnel. This lease-type arrangement gives small organizations access to the advantages of a professional data center without the need to expend large amounts of capital for facilities, technology and people.

Cloud Data Centers

In the mid-2000s, cloud computing really took hold. Without the need for companies to build their own physical facility, costs can be significantly reduced. Amazon first offered IT infrastructure services to businesses over the internet in 2006. The use of virtualized data centers increased by 32 percent in 2018 and there are no signs of this trend slowing down.


Benefits of a Virtual Data Center

In the age of cloud computing, virtualization lets progressive organizations take advantage of a number of technology and strategic business benefits.

Cost Management

A driving factor of virtualization is the cost of IT infrastructure. In a virtual data center environment, the hardware and infrastructure resources are shared, freeing organizations from building a data center from the ground up and continually updating hardware as technology advances. By utilizing a virtual data center, organizations have access to the ideal infrastructure for their business needs without the huge upfront costs.    

Data Mobility

Doing away with traditional infrastructure constraints, virtual data center technology allows users to access IT workloads, applications and data from anywhere at any time. Users no longer have to focus on infrastructure management efforts; instead, they can focus on managing and working with the data.    


Virtual data centers allow for quick responses to changing business needs. If an organization needs to adapt business operations, including IT configurations and infrastructure, it is easier, quicker and less costly to do with a virtual data center because the hardware is decoupled from the needed IT configurations.    


Data Center Design Considerations

Whether you’re designing a new data center or upgrading an existing facility, here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Power & Performance. Utility costs are a major concern for most data centers. It’s important to find ways to minimize energy consumption while maintaining functionality and uptime.
  • Space Optimization. For physical data center facilities, organization is key to keep costs down. If you run out of space, you may have to invest in a new facility. Utilize intelligent cabinet and racking systems, choose your cables carefully, and make use of floor and rafter systems to keep clutter to a minimum.
  • Cooling Systems. As mentioned earlier, overheating is a major concern with data center equipment. To reduce equipment maintenance costs and maximize uptime, ensure you have proper cooling systems in place.
  • Security. Security is a top priority. Be sure to have a plan in place for both your physical security and network security. Train employees on all procedures, and have a backup plan in place as well.

For a more in-depth look, read our article on Data Center Design Best Practices.


Data Center Trends

In today's technological landscape, there are several emerging data center trends to be aware of:

Flash Storage

Flash storage can deliver up to 99.9999% availability, meaning that outages are limited to a few seconds of downtime annually. Economic reasons, such as lower price points and reduced power and cooling costs, are a main driver behind the turn to all-flash modern data centers. Flash storage delivers new levels of performance while optimizing data center space.    

Hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI)

HCI is an all-in-one architecture that incorporates cloud-like infrastructure economics and flexibility into the enterprise without any hits to performance or reliability. HCI serves as a building block and can be added as needed instead of having to purchase new components every few years.    

Linux Container Management

Linux Container Management includes security, monitoring, storage and other runtime components in a single package regardless of infrastructure. This is an ideal option for production environments and DevOps businesses that want container management to integrate with infrastructure management.   


Optimize Your Data Center with CDW

Around since the advent of computers, data centers are not going anywhere. But they are rapidly evolving to meet the expanding data needs of enterprises. The strategies and storage methods associated with data centers will continually transform as business needs change. Data is at the heart of every business, so be sure that yours is managed and protected.

Ready to optimize your data center?    

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