Are data centres business critical or a commodity purchase?

Data centres appear to be gaining commodity status. The past five years have seen an explosion in facilities, all touting decreasing Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) ratings and boasting the latest energy efficiency and cooling technologies.

So far, so good. But are organisations looking beyond these claims? Are they actually assessing the role the data centre provider will play in supporting these business critical systems or considering the implications of business change on data centre requirements?

Are they simply buying processing power or ensuring this critical resource seamlessly melds into the overall ICT strategy, with the resilience, scalability and support expertise required?

Choosing the right data centre is not just about buying efficient, secure and high performing technology – that should be a given; it is about asking tough questions to find a business partner that can proactively offer the skills required to support what is a mission critical, strategic business decision.

Performance Distraction

In a world of re-emerging financial crisis and a business population looking hard for cost savings and manageable expenditure, data centres are booming. At first glance, these data centres are appealing, especially for those organisations facing regulatory demands for back-up locations or those looking for cheaper, off-site data storage.

But in what is fast becoming a commodity market, suppliers have limited opportunities for differentiation. Many have little or no skilled resources on site, and, in many cases, the main on site presence is a security guard. Cost and performance are the only differentiators – yet few opt for independent verification of Tier II, Tier III, even Tier IV claims via the Uptime Institute, or provide a clear roadmap towards ISO compliance, 140001 and 9001 compliance.

Of course, issues such as PUE are important for organisations. But, let’s be frank, every time a data centre updates its equipment, from racks to cooling, the PUE should improve. The gain is achieved simply as a result of hardware vendor innovation – it is no indication of the quality of expertise, resource or experience of that data centre provider.

Strategic Decision

When making the supplier decision, companies need to consider the role the data centre will play in the business. If an organisation requires nothing more than access to the cheapest possible processing resource, then an unmanned data centre in a remote location may make sense – although it is still worth checking out whether or not it is on a flood plain, or close to an airport, and has fast, reliable communications links.

For the vast majority of organisations, however, the data centre is a mission critical operation. Making the decision simply on performance statistics and efficiency ratings overlooks a range of critical issues, from getting the right advice about the level of facilities required; to how data centre services will link into the rest of the ICT infrastructure; even, critically, if the time is right to make this move.

With the right advice, organisations can maximise the value of a data centre resource and minimise the operational risks. Rather than simply use a data centre for off-site back up, for example, is there an opportunity to relocate on-premise resources, such as Exchange servers, to free up much needed office space? Or, on the other hand, has the organisation got the right connectivity solutions in place to ensure the data centre works effectively and offers full resilience?

Tough Questions

In the current market, the vast majority of data centre suppliers will simply take an organisation’s specification and offer a price. If that specification does not truly reflect business requirements, or a key component of the solution has been overlooked, there are limited options for problem resolution. The data centre will take no responsibility: it has delivered just what was requested. So where will the organisation turn and how will the business operate during the hiatus?

Whether outsourcing entire ICT operations or opting for co-location, no business can justify this level of operational risk. It is therefore essential to ensure a data centre supplier is offering far more than uptime and good performance promises.

Working in partnership with a data centre operator is key; with the right advice a business can ensure its data centre strategy reflects core business needs; it can verify that other key components, from connectivity onwards, are in place to support those needs; and feel confident that resources are available to ensure any technical issues can be immediately resolved.

Furthermore, organisations need to put in place safeguards for the future. How scalable is the data centre operation? Does the supplier have the skills to respond to emerging business needs? Can the company offer real time support for both the equipment and, if required, application? Will it work with the organisation to ensure the data centre strategy is still aligned to business goals?

These are tough questions – questions that the vast majority of data centre suppliers will want to avoid and instead play to their perceived strengths, focussing on self-certified performance statistics. But these questions are critical if an organisation is to ensure the data centre strategy delivers its objectives and minimises corporate risk.

Conclusion

With the trend towards deskilling internally and looking for a controllable IT cost base continuing, there is no doubt that growing numbers of organisations are moving IT into a data centre. But volume should not mean commodity.

Data centre decisions are fundamental to business strategy; they support compliance requirements and deliver critical disaster recovery facilities. Basing the decision on performance box ticking cannot be justified. Good performance should be a given, and if verified by an independent body such as the Uptime Institute and compliant with recognised international standards, then so much the better.

It is the skills, experience, ability to scale, resources and business understanding that are the key criteria for ensuring a business make the right, long term data centre decision.

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An Honours graduate, Joanna Sedley-Burke joined Sovereign in 2004. She was previously employed by one of the largest housing management software and specialist services providers in the UK with over 20 years experience in the Public Sector.