Tesco or the local grocers and butcher’s shop? Starbucks or the family run café? Weatherspoons or…. well, you get the idea. We all have to make daily decisions as to whether to go for the convenience (and possible value for money) offered by large chains, or to support local businesses.

Historically things haven’t been great for the latter, although recent controversy about how much multinationals pay in tax, together with a government drive to support new business has seen a resurgence in SMEs. So what about technology services, and more specifically, data centres in the UK?

With the rise of the internet, social media, cloud services and more recently ‘big data’, there has never been more competition (and by proxy, choice), in the data centre market. Broadly speaking, there are three categories for companies to choose from: established multinationals, established independents and new entrants.

The big boys

The established multinational data centres, such as Global Switch, Equinix and TeleCity have been in the UK for decades now and have a global presence. This can offer huge advantages to companies that need international connectivity and peace of mind that their servers are in secure, well run facilities. There is however a financial premium for using this kind of data centre provider, and sometimes a compromise on flexibility too, so unless a company needs international connectivity and colocation services, there may be better alternatives.

The noughtie upstarts

In the mid-noughties, following the dot-com bubble burst and subsequent recovery, a few independent data centre providers started popping up. This included the likes of 4D Data Centres in Surrey, Blue Square in Berkshire and UK Grid and M247 in Manchester. These data centres were different in that they were privately funded and established by individuals who saw a niche in providing colocation for local SMEs. Specifically, this included companies that required a small footprint, (quarter, half or a couple of full racks) and for whom a UK-only presence was all that was required.

As relative unknowns however, in order to compete with the ‘Big Boys’ these early independent data centres needed to be competitive on price and customer service. Equally they had to go the extra mile with technical support and it was this type of data centre that introduced benefits such as ‘free remote hands’ and ‘free IP transit’ that are now industry standard.

Consolidation and diversification

In the past few years, some of the independents, such as UK Grid, have been snapped up by the Big Boys (TeleCity in this case), while others such as Blue Square have merged to form large multi-site vendors (now called Pulsant). There has also been a proliferation of new entrants into the market, some of which are spin-offs of consultancies while others are backed by speculative property developers.

So which kind of data centre is best for me?

Servers that are put into a colocation facility tend to be mission critical, so how do you know whether your data is in good hands?

  • First check the ‘hygiene factors’, which, in the case of data centres are a simple checklist of features most facilities should already have in place.
  • Accreditations can be a useful guide, however do not rely on these exclusively and always ask “what are the criteria for getting this certificate?”. A good example of this is where some companies obtain ISO27001 certification for a very specific part of their business (such as their Comms Room) rather than applying it to the company as a whole – if in doubt, ask to see a copy of the certificate and the scope of the accreditation.
  • Staff training and qualifications are very important. What are the minimum standards for the first line support engineers; how much training do they have before being set loose on client equipment; and how are standards maintained? Again, when bold claims are made, ask for proof.
  • Finally, always visit the data centre before making a decision on who you’re going to go with. What does your gut say about the data centre itself and the people working in it? Not just the fancy reception area and meeting room, but the datafloor, the main offices and the switchgear room – are they tidy and professional looking too? Aside from the sales people, what about the technical staff, the directors and the person working on reception – are they happy, helpful and professional?

By visiting a data centre in person you can usually get a pretty good feel as to whether it’s a nice-looking, well run facility with a professional atmosphere. And just in the same way you wouldn’t always go for the cheapest supermarket for your groceries or the cheapest lawyer to draw up your contracts, going for the cheapest data centre may cost you more in the long run.