Grow Your Data Center With Colocation

Licking latency

Another motivation for creating a new data center is to boost application responsiveness for regional employees, customers and other end users. Organizations running latency-sensitive network applications -- the kind commonly used to power shopping and travel websites, financial services, videoconferencing and content distribution -- usually like to place their applications as near to end users as possible to improve response times. By splitting a data center into two or more sites, an organization can efficiently serve users distributed across a wide region or even over multiple continents.

Dayton, Ohio-based LexisNexis, known for its legal research and workflow services, decided in 2009 to establish a colo data center in Scottsdale, Ariz., to serve customers more efficiently from a location that's relatively immune from storms, earthquakes and other natural calamities. "We wanted something that was in the western region of the U.S.," says Terry Williams, the company's vice president of managed technology services. "Location was a huge part of our decision." The company already had a data center in Dayton.

Not surprisingly, network availability and performance were essential considerations for LexisNexis as it went about choosing its new data center site. "The key thing for us is network connectivity," Williams says. "That was something that just couldn't be compromised on."

LexisNexis is hardly the only organization seeking to bring data centers closer to end users for better service, says Darin Stahl, a data center analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. "There's a definite move toward decentralization and that's helping enterprises that want to open additional data centers for one reason or another," he says.

Williams says that turning to a colocation provider -- Phoenix-based i/o Data Centers, in his case -- didn't require his firm to compromise on any facility services or amenities. "We expected all of the normal things that a high-tier data center would have in terms of backup power, generators and all of those things, as well as network connectivity," he says.

For his part, Burch feels that using a colocation provider -- his firm chose Columbia, S.C.-based Immedion -- allowed a faster, less costly deployment without sacrificing convenience or functionality. "We were able to get everything set up within a two-month period, and that included the building out of office space, even converting some office space into raised-floor data center space, which is pretty amazing."

Yet, finding a suitable colocation provider can be just as challenging as scouting a site for a traditional data center. "We looked at taking a building and converting it ourselves," Williams says. After deciding that overhauling a standalone building wouldn't be cost-effective, LexisNexis started looking for a colocation provider. "I would say that we probably spent six months searching for a site, and we probably looked at no less than 30 different locations and providers -- it was a very extensive search," Williams says.

Space can be at a premium

Then, too, colo space can be tight in some geographies, so expect to pay a premium in those areas. Tier1's Paschke explains that the economic slowdown and resulting credit crunch put the kibosh on a lot of data center capacity build-outs. That slowed down some of the colo vendors, of course, but it also meant that enterprises put their own data center expansion plans on hold. So nowadays, if customers choose to turn to colo vendors, they may find that there isn't quite as much data center space as they need.

This situation is, of course, very dependent on the geographic area involved. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for instance, talked about an oversupply in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. In general, though, many analysts point to an undersupply of colo space in key locations.

One reason this is important is because some shops opt to have their second data center near their main facility so they can stay close to their gear. Paschke calls these "server huggers" -- people who want to reach out and touch their servers, even though the goal in most data centers is to automate much, if not all, of the systems management. If your main facility is in a high-demand area, it might be difficult to find a nearby colo facility.

More factors to think about when going colo include deciding upfront what you're willing to pay for. Some customers need mega-bandwidth for instant response times and require stringent service-level agreements, and some choose to have telecom links to several providers for backup purposes, in case one telecom vendor goes black. Others aren't so concerned. "Some people don't care; milliseconds don't mean that much to them," says Jonathan Hjembo, senior analyst at TeleGeography Research. "Customers just need a ridiculous amount of different things," and it's that diversity that's pushing the market forward, he adds.

Other considerations include security -- both physical and virtual -- and backup infrastructure, including power, cooling, fire suppression and the like. Customers also need to discuss their future needs with their would-be colo partners, to make sure the vendors will have enough space for the customer's anticipated needs for the next few years. And be sure to do a financial analysis.

Staffing and related issues

Mention "colocation" and a lot of IT staffers will hear "outsourcing" and will naturally fear losing their jobs or influence, analysts say. "People are resistant to change," Tier1's Paschke says.

Figure on your staff needing some time to become comfortable with this notion. Info-Tech's Stahl talks about an evolution from using colo for a backup data center to perhaps handling more critical, first-tier kinds of hardware, storage and applications. "Once that happens, customers start to wonder whether it's the best use of a server admin to go to the colo facility and mess around in the cage for a day." At that point, the company may be ready to consider managed services for some of their IT functions.

LexisNexis' Williams notes that one secondary data center requirement that tends to be overlooked until the very last moment is finding qualified people to staff the facility. Sometimes enterprises opt to use the colo vendor's on-site experts, but other times they simply lease space within the facility and staff it themselves.

"Obviously, you're going to do local hiring," Williams says. But he notes that a remote data center has different staffing needs than a primary site. Since secondary data centers generally don't have as many management and administrative jobs as main sites, hiring needs tend to focus on technical individuals who can easily move between multiple tasks. "You want a small staff that can actually do a number of different things," he advises.

Still, Williams notes that LexisNexis had no shortage of Dayton data center staff members volunteering to transfer to the new location. "If it's in a nice location like Scottsdale, everybody is raising their hand to move out there and provide support," he says.

For most enterprises, adding a colocated data center is usually a significantly easier task than creating a primary site from scratch. In most cases, established platforms and practices can be replicated fairly painlessly at the new location. Kemet used its main data center as a staging area for the new site.

"To ease the transition, we actually built all the new equipment in our primary data center," Burch says. "We synchronized all the data that was going to be replicated at the new site and conducted some tests to make sure everything was going to work the way it was supposed to." The equipment was then transported to the new data center. "We then simply turned it on and just let it catch up on what it had missed in the eight hours it had been in transit," Burch says.

To complete the job, the Kemet team conducted a series of tests to make sure that the new business continuity system would work flawlessly. "Once we had confirmed that, we basically declared it in production and then, a month later, we let our traditional [disaster] recovery contract expire," Burch says.

Other pointers

Careful planning and close attention to details are vital to a successful deployment, Burch says. "Most of all, look carefully at any contracts that might be involved with the new data center, particularly any disaster recovery or hosting contracts that could be either a positive or a negative in your planning," he advises.

Burch also urges organizations not to neglect their main data center when planning their new facility, particularly if they intend to use the new site in any sort of backup role. "We did our new facility in conjunction with upgrading all of the equipment in our current data center," he says.

Kemet also placed all-new equipment in its remote data center. "That's provided us with a good bit more flexibility as well as horsepower for our test and development environment," Burch says. "The developers are very pleased with that."

LexisNexis' Williams feels that finding a competent and trustworthy colocation partner is essential to the success of a secondary data center, since the provider will be responsible for delivering essential infrastructure services, including power and cooling. "The key thing is to find a partner that can provide what I would consider to be that intimate level of service -- meaning that you feel that you're the only client there."

John Edwards is a technology writer in the Phoenix area. Contact him at jedwards@gojohnedwards.com.

Additional reporting by Johanna Ambrosio, Computerworld's technology editor.

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