Data Centres are big business. With the growing reliance on data centre services, organisations are increasingly dependent upon the quality, reliability and suitability of the data centre. But how many are fit for purpose – technically, environmentally or culturally?

As growing numbers of organisations from diverse backgrounds muscle into this market – attracted by the apparent ease of return from a high volume, low service model – a huge diversity in data centre quality, design and cost is emerging. That cost first is an unacceptably high risk approach when determining where to locate the IT systems that underpin every organisation.

Data centre business

During 2012 there was a 25% increase in investment in data centre infrastructure in the UK, according to figures from DataCenterDynamics, with $3.35 billion invested making the UK the second largest centre of data centre investment in the world, after the US. There is now 7.59m square metres of dedicated data centre space, housing an estimated 2 million racks.

This level of investment clearly reflects the growing demand for data centre space; demand fuelled by the growth in technology such as Cloud Computing. However, it also reflects the changing nature of the current market. Whilst in the past data centre development has been the preserve of IT companies, many of today’s investors have a different background – and hence can create a different data centre environment.

For a growing number of organisations, a data centre offers the best annual return on property space – especially when compared to the declining return offered by other commercial property markets. With companies looking to repurpose existing land or property investment – including office complexes – into data centres, many of the traditional considerations regarding data centre location, such as flood risk, accessibility and communications availability may be prioritised differently.

It is clear, therefore, that not all data centres are created equal. Considering the critical nature of the systems being housed, ‘buyer beware’ has never been a more important concept.

Aligned or accredited?

Whether opting for straight Colocation or a Managed IT Service, if organisations are going relocate critical business systems to a data centre, it is essential to determine the reliability, quality and suitability of the data centre. Rather than rely on blanket claims of being ‘aligned’ to Tier III or ISO 27001, organisations need to proactively assess whether the data centre is fit for purpose. And, where possible, this should involve a visit.

By physically checking, an organisation can verify critical factors. Has the data centre been shoe horned into a, frankly, inappropriate space and, as a result, simply cannot deliver the standards? Is it located on a flood plain – a key concern for many City of London data centres given the accepted escalating risk of the Thames flooding?

How easy is it to get there? While much of the routine maintenance can be handled remotely, IT staff will still need to visit the site in the event of a problem arising. And, if the organisation needs site access outside of normal operating hours, what is the process for getting access?

How long would it take and what is the implication on fixing the business critical system? How quickly can your supplier respond to your problem if your staff can’t get to the site? And does the site offer usable spaces that enable IT staff to undertake these essential maintenance operations, such as break out rooms and rest facilities? Overall, is the data centre everything it says it is and what you need it to be?

The answers to these questions will provide a good indication as to whether the data centre provider has a clear commitment to, and understanding of, the requirements of IT provision. Or have they simply approached this market with the same attitude they would load a warehouse full of FMCG products – filling the space is the priority, with less consideration of the critical issues of support and IT systems integration.

Indeed, in many cases a quick glance around will also provide a good indication into the attitude of the data centre organisation. Dirty floors, old carpet tiles – often the tiles used when the building was an office – and disorganised cables should provide immediate red flags warning a lack of care in managing the IT equipment.

Customer centric

This is where attitude is key. Whilst the current market increasingly likes to paint a data centre as a commodity offering and downplay the skills associated with keeping equipment up and running, this is disingenuous. Organisations are locating business critical systems in a data centre; they are paying for high availability and resilience in a secure location. Despite improvements in automation and remote technology, a good data centre will still require IT expertise to ensure good performance, to minimise risk of problems and to address any issues rapidly when they occur.

Taking a customer centric approach to creating a data centre completely changes the performance and design. As well as including a high technical and security specification, the data centre offers a better day-to-day experience for clients – from on-site parking to break out, build and storage rooms. More critically, an IT led data centre will be more than a room with a couple of added value services – the service should be the core element of the data centre, supported by excellent technical and security technology and process.

Organisations need to consider a raft of issues when determining the right data centre – location, security, comms are obvious but, increasingly, there is a need to add another component: who is designing, running and building the data centre? It is the culture of that service provider as much as the core facilities that will determine the critical quality, resilience and reliability of service delivery.

Does the service provider come from a background of IT service delivery, with on-site staff experienced in Colocation, outsourcing and IT service delivery? Can the organisation demonstrate true accreditation, rather than just being ‘aligned’, to standards – such as Tier III? Just what is the ratio of on-site IT staff to equipment; and what on-site support is available if required in the event of a business threatening problem?

Is your IT just a commodity product?

The pile it high, sell it cheap approach works in many markets – but should organisations really trust their business critical systems to this business model and is there actual benefit to the business when cheap doesn’t always mean good? A data centre may be becoming a commodity concept for some providers – but would any organisation consider its IT infrastructure a commodity product?

This is a critical decision; moving between data centres is far from straightforward. So even if the business decision today is to opt for Colocation, what happens if that changes and additional services are required in the future? An IT led data centre that has not only been designed from the ground up to meet technical and geographic requirements, but is also predicated upon service delivery does not only provide a far more robust and reliable data centre environment, but can also support changing business needs.