The enterprise data centre of the future will be a highly flexible and adaptable organism, responding quickly to changing needs because of technologies like virtualisation, a modular building approach, and an operating system that treats distributed resources as a single computing pool.

The move toward flexibility in all data centre processes, discussed extensively by analysts and IT professionals at Gartner's 27th annual data centre conference, comes after years of building monolithic data centres that react poorly to change.

"For years we spent a lot of money building out these data centres, and the second something changed it was: 'How are we going to be able to do that?'" says Brad Blake, director of IT at Boston Medical centre. "What we've built up is so specifically built for a particular function, if something changes we have no flexibility."

Rapidly changing business needs and new technologies that require extensive power and cooling are necessitating a makeover of data centres, which represent a significant chunk of an organisation's capital costs, Blake notes.

For example, he says "when blade servers came out that completely screwed up all of our matrices as far as the power we needed per square foot, and the cooling we needed because these things sucked up so much energy, used so much heat."

Virtualisation of servers, storage, desktops and the network is the key to flexibility in Blake's mind, because hardware has long been tied too rigidly to specific applications and systems.

But the growing use of virtualisation is far from the only trend making data centres more flexible. Gartner expects to see today's blade servers replaced in the next few years with a more flexible type of server that treats memory, processors and I/O cards as shared resources that can be arranged and rearranged as often as necessary.