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Will your data center disappear this year?

Tonight, before you lock up your data center and hit the lights, take a look around. Gaze longingly at your racks of servers and bundles of cables. Listen to the sweet sounds of the machines whirring and beeping. And take a deep breath of that dry, artificially cooled air.

In a matter of months, it may all be gone — or owned by someone else.

That’s according to Gartner, who predicts that “20 percent of businesses will own no IT assets by 2012.” The research firm says three major factors will contribute to this phenomenon: virtualization, cloud computing and employees running personal devices on corporate networks.

“The need for computing hardware, either in a data center or on an employee’s desk, will not go away,” Gartner said in a press release. “However, if the ownership of hardware shifts to third parties, then there will be major shifts throughout every facet of the IT hardware industry.”

Just to reiterate: By 2012 — only 346 days from now — one in five businesses will own no IT assets. There are many ways to attack this, um, bold prediction, but I’m going to focus on the virtualization and cloud computing angles.

I’m really not sure how virtualization will result in businesses owning no IT assets. Yes, virtualization does help you consolidate servers, but you still need IT assets to run virtual workloads. You can’t consolidate down to zero physical servers.

Businesses that have virtualized aren’t likely to abandon or rent out all their IT assets by the end of the year. So that leaves us with businesses that haven’t virtualized. And what do you know? Back in September, Gartner said 20 percent of businesses haven’t virtualized at all. Now I can at least see where Gartner’s coming from. Their thinking must have gone something like this:

“If 20 percent of businesses haven’t virtualized, they’re going to be looking for new ways to save money in 2011. And instead of embarking on a complicated virtualization deployment, they might as well just move everything to the public cloud instead.”

From a business or technology standpoint, that makes sense (except for the part where you still need some internal IT assets to access your public cloud resources, but I’ll let that slide). But if a company hasn’t even tried virtualization by now, it’s probably not a decision based on business or technology needs. It’s probably a decision based on corporate culture — a culture of “everything is fine the way it is, so why change?”

Looking at it that way, Gartner’s prediction seems very unlikely to come true. Cloud computing is a much more dramatic shift than virtualization was, and companies that were reluctant to virtualize are going to fight cloud computing kicking and screaming.

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