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Data Centers Turn to Outsourcing to Meet Capacity Needs

More large companies are turning to collocation providers to relieve capacity constraints in their data centers, as a way to avoid the high cost of building their own new brick-and-mortar facilities, two studies suggest.

The Uptime Institute, in its first annual data center survey, reported Tuesday that more than a third of the large companies it surveyed -- 36 percent -- expect to run out of capacity in at least one of their data centers over the next 18 months.

Server consolidation and upgrading of power and cooling equipment are the primary ways the companies said they would boost their capacity, the survey showed. But a significant portion -- 29 percent -- said they plan to lease collocation space, while 20 percent will move workloads to the cloud.

That's notable because large companies traditionally have kept their IT operations in-house, said Matt Stansberry, a research analyst with the Uptime Institute. "This is a trend we've been seeing," toward more companies managing IT operations that are outside their own data centers, he said.

A separate study commissioned by Digital Realty Trust, which builds and operates data centers for third parties, showed a similar trend. Sixty percent of the respondents who planned to expand their data center capacity in 2011 said they would lease space from a third party rather than build their own data center. That was an increase of 7 percent over last year, which follows an upward trend over the past few years.

"Increasingly, enterprises appear to be favoring the lease model, as fewer companies are choosing to go it alone on these capital-intensive projects," Michael Foust, Digital Realty's CEO, said in a statement.

The Uptime survey quizzed 525 large data-center operators, mostly in North America, in March and April. They included banks, insurance companies, collocation providers and government agencies -- what the Uptime Institute called "typically conservative organizations."

Digital Realty's study involved 300 IT executives directly involved in data center decision-making at large corporations in North America.

The fact that so many data centers are running out of power, cooling or floor space isn't a surprise. Many companies put data center projects on hold during the recession and are just now starting to ramp up spending.

"Companies stretched server life cycles an extra 12-24 months, sat on their wallets and rode out the crisis. Now, a lot of shops need to do major infrastructure upgrades," Stansberry said.

A new data center can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take a year-and-a-half to build. They are also expensive to operate, mostly because of the power needed to run the IT gear and cooling equipment. That may explain why even large, conservative companies are willing to move IT workloads outside their own data centers.

Uptime's data on cloud computing was mixed. Twenty-six percent of respondents said they were not considering cloud services of any kind. Twenty-one percent said they were building private clouds and 2 percent said they were using public cloud services. Fourteen percent were using both.

Companies that operate their own data centers are using several techniques to improve energy efficiency. The most widely used, according to the Uptime survey, are server virtualization, used by 82 percent of respondents; hot aisle/cold aisle containment, used by 77 percent; and power monitoring and measurement, used by 67 percent.

Fifty-seven percent have raised the inlet temperatures on chillers, basically running their data centers at higher temperature; and 46 percent are using variable speed drives, which allow cooling fans to adjust their speed depending on the temperature. (As with most of the questions, respondents could select all the answers that apply, so the percentages add up to more than 100.)

Other data points in the Uptime survey include the following:

-- Of those considering cloud computing, 61 percent said the primary driver is scalability/flexibility; 25 percent said it's to reduce costs; 9 percent said it's because they are running out of capacity; and 5 percent said they hoped to reduce staffing burdens.

-- Seventy-three percent of respondents said their facilities or real estate department pays the data-center power bill. Only 19 percent said it's the IT department and 8 percent didn't know. Industry experts say IT departments should be given at least some responsibility for the power bill, because it will encourage them to use less energy.

-- Of those trying to save energy, 87 percent do it to save money, 45 percent for corporate responsibility efforts, 37 percent to free up capacity, and 13 percent for compliance or regulation. Four percent said they do it for PR/marketing reasons.

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