Your Next Generation Data Center: Locations and Expectations?

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data center x300by Jennifer Zaino

The digital universe is growing by a factor of 10, from 4.4 trillion gigabytes to 44 trillion between 2013 and 2020, according to EMC’s seventh digital universe study, with research and analysis by IDC. With the digital universe doubling in size every two years, as the study notes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that data center demand to enable organizations to support that growth is on the upswing.

Indeed, the Uptime Institute’s 2013 Data Center Industry Survey finds that data center budgets are growing worldwide, with more than one-third of data center organizations receiving large year-over-year budget increases. But an interesting aspect of this expansion is that the most significant growth is occurring in the third party sphere, according to the report, with 63 percent of third-party data center operators reporting a large budget increase, compared to just 25 percent of enterprise data center operators.

This “possibly [reflects] a shift in spending away from enterprise-owned data centers,” the Uptime Institute notes, while also citing that 21 percent of such operators actually reported budget decreases.

“The co-location model is gaining traction compared to do-it-yourself,” says Steve Harris, VP of data center design for IT infrastructure integrator Forsythe Technology. In the typical IT organization, the actual physical environment of the data center itself is “usually the last thing on the list that there is a competency around,” he says, “and it ends up being the forgotten stepchild.” New physical data center upgrades are neglected, and there isn’t necessarily a proactive approach when it comes to auditing existing assets, including for their applicability to current requirements.

That’s a big drawback in an age when technology changes rapidly. “In a ten-year period there typically are three refreshes of IT,” Harris says, each one bringing with it different requirements around power, cooling and floor space. Yet these refreshes, he says, are often undertaken without regard to their dependency upon an un-refreshed data center, meaning that organizations wind up using “the same chassis to keep running a more modern, and a more power- and cooling-intensive environment than it was designed to support.” When those mismatches collide, the fixes or upgrades to the physical environment itself can be a shocking 7-figure (or larger) cost.

Why Go Co-location?

There’s appeal in taking advantage of third-party operators whose job is to build data centers with the future in mind, both as it relates to being capable of servicing the latest technology refreshes and ever-growing data requirements.

“Storage is growing exponentially year over year, so the storage component of data centers is growing exponentially,” he says. “A co-location facility is really well suited for that. Storage doesn’t require a lot of human interaction, so you can set it up within a co-lo and run it lights out for a very long time.”

In addition to a lot of primary production happening in co-location (co-lo) environments across the country, these sites also fill the need businesses have for secondary and tertiary data centers, and active disaster recovery sites, he notes. Companies, Forsythe finds, increasingly subscribe to a hybrid model of using in-house and external data centers to spread the risk across sites without the capital and operational expenses and headaches of having to run them all themselves.  “This way they don’t have to worry so much about fuel refills and air conditioner filter changes and all the things that are necessary to keeping a data center up to speed,” he says.

There’s also no one typical type of customer – by size or industry – that’s looking to exploit the model. “It depends on the needs of the business,” Harris says. For startups, for example, the real estate costs to install a data center in an office building for primary production can be prohibitive – not to mention that such buildings usually aren’t well-designed to support the power and weight requirements of a data center. “We’ve also seen a lot of very large businesses with their primary production in co-location facilities vs. owned and operated data centers,” he says.

Where’s the Competition?

While public cloud options also beckon to support some users’ needs, Harris contends that many CIOs remain nervous about leveraging these solutions – particularly when it comes to sensitive internal data, such as customers’ private information.

“A lot of CIOs are overly cautious, and rightly so, of losing control over the financial side of the business,” he says. “Those apps and that data likely stays in-house where there is more control, whether in-house is that client’s actual owned- and operated-data center or one in a co-lo facility.”

Modular or containerized data centers – data centers in a box, if you will – also can service some data center growth requirements, but only to a certain extent. While quick to deploy, Harris says, “the data center-in-a-box has difficulties when it comes to supporting varied platforms of different power densities, floor space requirements, and housing cabinets.” While they perform really well for the organization with homogeneous needs, such as filling them all up with state-of-the-art servers, “most organizations don’t have data centers that look homogenous,” he says.

What is a Future-Focused Data Center?

As an infrastructure integrator for the past four decades, Forsythe has been involved with helping clients deal with various aspects of moving into other co-lo sites and operating these data centers. Come early 2015, it will open its own data center in Elk Grove Village, Ill. for clients that will focus on aspects such as density, power and cooling, as well as services it has long offered, such as migrating clients’ data center technology or supplying them with new technology if they’ve reached their three-year-refresh cycle; re-architecting their network infrastructures; and helping them draw up new disaster recovery and business continuity plans to cover their new address in the new facility.

It’s joining some established names in the co-location sector, which is expected to grow to $10 billion by 2017, according to IHS Technology, including both retail and wholesale operations. But many co-lo providers today are more real estate plays, Harris says, while Forsythe’s history is as an IT consultancy and integrator. “We’re getting into the data center business because we wanted to leverage all the products and services we’ve offered for years within our own data center,” says Harris, who along with Albert Weiss is leading the design, construction, operations and management of the center that is part of the new subsidiary, Forsythe Data Centers, Inc. Clients today want more from their co-lo partners than floor space, power, cooling and telecom, he says.

Beyond supplying the solutions and services to help clients move in and operate co-location sites, Forsythe also is building its facility to stay ahead of trends in densification and energy-efficiency, enough to put its new site “in good stead for about the next decade,” Harris says.

Many other co-lo facilities, especially those built three to ten years ago, have density levels lower than today’s requirements really demand, he says. Five years ago, for instance, it wasn’t a bad deal to get 4 kilowatts (Kw) of power on a per-footprint or per-rack basis, he says – and ten years ago it was fantastic. But today, that’s quickly becoming inadequate, he says. With today’s IT technology, it’s not possible to fully stock a 7-foot horizontal cabinet full of IT equipment with just 4 Kw-per-footprint of power available, he says. That means IT managers wind up having to spread systems across more cabinets in 10,000 square foot facilities, leading to more management issues, and pay more in associated costs. “You’ll spend an average of $10,000 worth of infrastructure to support the IT that goes into every cabinet,” he says.

Forsythe plans call for its 4,000 square foot co-lo facility to go to just under 11 Kw per-footprint, to fully support a full load of IT equipment in a 7-foot rack space or vertical cabinet. “As an IT director would you rather manage 300 cabinets in a 10,000 square foot environment or 112 or 120 in a 4,000 square foot environment,” he says. “We’re delivering more density through a smaller footprint.”

The facility is being designed to comply with U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification standards for data centers. It is a bit of an oxymoron to make a data center green, Harris admits, given that they inherently consume a huge amount of power. “But where you can, and when you can, be a little more efficient and conservative in how you design, engineer and operate something, we want to do that,” he says. The idea seems to be catching on in the industry: The Uptime Institute’s recent study reports that more than half its survey respondents are pursuing a green certification, with 77 percent of the largest data center operators looking to be recognized for being green.

What’s the Take on Security?

Forsythe is shooting for ISO 9001 quality management accreditation from the International Organization for Standardization and Tier III certification from the Uptime Institute, as well. Security also is a focus, as it must be, starting at the structural level with wind-resistance to 190 MPH, to key card and biometric access functions. “Most co-lo facilities do a good job of physical security,” Harris says. “It’s all about access or denying access.”

Companies who tap co-location centers would not typically expect security services other than physical security from a traditional provider, although some specialized add-on security services for network and data are offered by some co-lo providers as managed services or as part of a managed hosting service, says Kathryn Saunders, senior director, hosting services at Mentora, a Forsythe company.

“If they are offered, clients may look to their co-lo provider for standalone security vulnerability scanning, DDoS protection or SIEM services; for data encryption services as part of a managed storage or managed backup solution; or for some or all of those, along with ongoing/day-to-day IT security operations and user access administration as part of a managed hosting service,” she says. She also points out that Forsythe Data Centers will offer the company’s full set of security features that include security operations center services, managed services and managed hosting, as well as professional services to architect, implement and deploy secure cost-effective IT infrastructures

David Hove, practice manager, security solutions at Forsythe, recommends a set of industry best practices for IT security controls for companies managing their own IT security for systems hosted in a co-location facility. He advises that they trust the hosting provider, but verify in ways that include maintaining accurate asset inventories including sub-compute components (databases, libraries, dependencies) and an accurate application and data flow to support fine-grain compute and network controls. They also should enable visibility into all components the hosting provider doesn’t own, including by monitoring, logging and analyzing network traffic and compute integrity.

“Consider the systems as unsecured to push the organization into using comprehensive security controls,” he further explains, from locking cabinets and servers to encrypting data in transit and at rest to ensuring frequent patching and vulnerability scanning cycles, to name just a few.

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