This content is part of the Essential Guide: Colocated data centers uncut: Avoid these costly errors

Attention IT shoppers: How to find the right colocation provider

Many businesses turn to colocation providers when they need flexible IT facility space and services. But what should you look for in a provider?

IT shops that grow and shrink with their companies can outsource to a colocation provider. There are a number of variables to assess before selecting what will likely be a long-term partner.

When companies need to grow, they consider a new data center build, which takes one to three years and could mean missed business opportunities and debt, said a representative from GlassHouse Technologies, Inc., a Southborough, Mass.-based IT consulting firm.

A lot of people want data centers to be about space, but the users want solutions: asset management, cooling, network connectivity and so on. They are IT buyers.

Dan Golding,
vice president of operations, Iron Mountain

Instead, some choose to house part, or all, of their data center with a colocation provider.

"Enterprises choose colo to save total cost of ownership compared to building or buying a data center," said Ian McVey, head of systems integrators at Interxion Holding N.V., a carrier-neutral colocation provider in Europe. "There are power, security, uptime and cost advantages."

But how do you choose the right colo? We posed frequently asked questions to companies that provide wholesale colocation to managed services, carrier-neutral hubs, cloud services and everything in between. Colocation shoppers should look at a provider's reliability, uptime, monitoring and management capabilities, and more, according to respondents.

Reasons to outsource to a colocation provider

Sometimes, declining on-staff expertise is a reason to outsource, but not always. Technology abstracts the architecture and the typical IT department doesn't need to understand it, said GlassHouse's representative.

Companies might possess deep applications knowledge, but not data center operator skills, said Robert McClary, senior vice president and general manager at FORTRUST, a colocation data center operator with locations in the U.S. The data center operational best practices in colocation facilities can extend their hardware lifecycles. But other companies come to colocation purely for the facility infrastructure.

"Our customers are outsourcing because they need scaling, not IT management services," said Raouf Abdel, operating chief at Equinix Inc., which runs colocation facilities in more than 30 countries globally.

Another major consideration is the colocation facility's cooling and power infrastructure and environmental impact.

"Traditional businesses can't keep up with the constantly evolving requirements around cooling and power [on-premises]," said Jim Masterson, CEO of LightEdge Solutions, a colocation and cloud services provider headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.

Colocation uptime, monitoring expectations

Colocation centers are designed for companies that can never have downtime for applications, said FORTRUST's McClary. Customers should expect high uptime as a rule, but can get a mix of uptime levels at different price points.

"We do 80,000 maintenance actions in these data centers in a given year, from basic visual checks to invasive pulling apart of major equipment," Abdel said. Colocation providers should also use sophisticated monitoring systems.

"The protocol around centralized monitoring -- pulling together the hundreds of data points from equipment monitoring systems -- has come a long way ... to prevent failures by providing monitoring, identifying repeat problems and chronic issues," Abdel said.

Equinix uses a building management system that sends critical alerts to its network operations center. FORTRUST has its own data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tool to give customers visibility into their data center assets. Iron Mountain, a Boston-based storage and information management company that expanded into colocation, changed to FieldView Solutions' DCIM tool in its data centers recently because "older tools are not keeping up," according to Dan Golding, vice president of operations at Iron Mountain, which also has a proprietary IT asset management system for customers to manage their systems.

Custom colocation

IT teams should look for colocation providers that understand an enterprise's specific needs. Many colocation providers only support cabinets up to a certain weight and amount of power, which is a problem for heavy enterprise IT cabinets, especially storage arrays, Golding said. Look for colocation providers with higher-power cabinets and stronger-than-average floor builds.

And while colocation data centers are set up as lights-out operations, customers still can be on-site to manage their systems when needed. It's one way that colocation differs from cloud hosting. If the colocation company meets these requirements, compare its managed services, specialization and other factors to choose your partner.

Finally, enterprise customers shouldn't look at colocation rates as set in stone. Seek out a provider that will work with you on customization.

Of course, if colocation isn't right for your organization, you have other options.

"If the 'server under the stairs' is still working for a business, keep buying lower-capacity racks and avoid dense computing products," said Lex Coors, VP of DTEG and chief engineering officer at Interxion. "The moment you go to high-density, you'll need colo or to build a new data center. But I wouldn't say colocation has to be the answer for everybody."

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