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What colocation customers should know about data center tiers

Colo providers use data center tiers as a quick, recognizable way to market their facilities' reliability and uptime, but that isn't the whole story.

Call it hype, biased interpretation or outright misrepresentation, but years of marketing overload around Uptime Tier certifications has data center colocation shoppers investigating beyond the numbers.

"One of the biggest mistakes is companies selecting a provider without fully reviewing and understanding the ongoing maintenance and operational plans associated with a given facility," said Rick Drescher, technical services director at Studley Inc., a commercial real estate services firm based in New York.

The Uptime Institute Inc. defines four data center tiers, from Tier I without redundancy to Tier IV with redundancy, fault tolerance, independent dual-powered IT racks and cooling systems and more. Any data center can arbitrarily say it is Tier II compliant, so the Uptime Institute certifies facilities all over the world against its standards for tier rankings on design, construction or operations.

We asked several colocation providers what these data center tiers really mean, and what colocation customers should ask when they see a tier advertised.

The nitty-gritty on data center tier certification

There is definitely some gamesmanship in the data center industry around tier qualification.

Chris Crosby, Compass Datacenters

IT-savvy colo customers aren't paying much attention to the tier number, said Raouf Abdel, operating chief at Equinix Inc., which has 100 colocation facilities globally. They want to see power specs, carrier information, the data center maintenance regime and other specifics.

"There is definitely some gamesmanship in the data center industry around tier qualification," said Chris Crosby, CEO of Compass Datacenters, a Dallas-based company that built a Tier III data center for colocation provider CenturyLink Technology Solutions. Getting both the design and construction certifications was important for the partners to show redundancy and uptime.

There's a disturbing trend of data centers getting a Tier IV design certified, then not building to those design specs, according to Dan Golding, vice president of operations at Iron Mountain, which certified its new colocation facility in Northborough, Mass., to Tier III for design and construction.

"We considered things like wall depth, roof design" in the Northborough build, Golding said, to make the difference between true Tier III and "a near miss." He recommends colocation users ask the provider about certification specifics before they sign on. If the building didn't get Uptime Institute's construction certification, find out why.

To counter marketing stratagems, Uptime Institute expires its design certification in two years. The Uptime Institute also maintains a readily available list of all the data centers that it has certified and to what level. If a colocation provider says it's certified, verify the claims.

And then there's the matter of what happens once a colocation center opens its Tier-rated doors.

"A lot of colocation customers are putting Uptime's [Operational Sustainability] certification into requests for proposals," said Lee Kirby, chief technology officer at Uptime Institute, who says the growth in colocation yields educated colocation shoppers. "They want that ensured consistency ... even if the data center personnel and systems change, or the company that built the data center is not the same company running it."

Operational Sustainability certificates expire in one to three years, and Kirby notes that many colocation customers will include a penalty in the contract if their provider lets the certification lapse. It gives the enterprise leverage, he said, while preventing a situation where they pack up and move because of bad operations.

"Data centers, just like any other complex system, require ongoing maintenance and preventative care to ensure they are operating at their designed levels of efficiency and reliability," Studley's Drescher said. So, a Tier IV design certification won't help when your colocation provider neglects its fuel supply contracts, for example.

Beyond data center tiers

The Uptime Institute also certifies facilities for its Management and Operations (M&O) Stamp of Approval, which U.S.-based colocation provider Fortrust earned for 12 years of continuous running uptime. "The Uptime tiers [for design and construction] look at a point in time," said Robert McClary, senior vice president and general manager at Fortrust. "Operating to your SLA [service-level agreement] is what defines you."

Just as tier certifications quickly became de rigueur‎ in the data center services industry, the M&O stamp will take off, McClary predicted. The Uptime Institute has awarded 16 so far, and Kirby confirmed that many more are in the queue.

Forsythe Technology Inc., a technology integrator, will pursue the stamp for the Tier III colocation center it is building outside of Chicago, according to Steve Harris, who is in charge of data center development.

"A large enterprise can require the M&O stamp of all of its colocation providers globally, as it's intended for already built data centers that may not have Tier rankings," Uptime's Kirby said. "All those colos' customers in those multi-tenant data centers will benefit, and the enterprise can retain control similar to that of an owned data center."

More colocation elements to consider

There are various other certifications and best practices that colocation customers should consider.

More badges on a colo's resume

The EU Data Centre Code of Conduct is a vendor-independent initiative of best practices for energy efficiency and other metrics that data centers worldwide follow.

Also look for awards from or alignment with the Certified Energy Efficient Datacentre Award (CEEDA); American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE); and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

"SSAE [Statement on Standards for Attestation Engagements] 16 is pretty much a standard ask now, and a lot of colocation users want to see ISO[International Organization for Standardization]-9001 certification, as well as Uptime tiers," Harris said.

Equinix, which provides Tier III colocation facilities, also has its data centers audited to SSAE 16 standards in North America and the comparable [International Standards for Assurance Engagements] ISAE 3402 standards for physical security and environmental controls in Europe and abroad. Testing takes place over a minimum six-month period on operational controls of data center services.

Colocation customers like to see LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design], said Forsythe's Harris, especially if they're marketing a green footprint.

Dig into the colocation provider's construction and expansion model as well, said Bryan Chong, sales vice president at Digital Realty Trust Inc., which prefabricates its Pod data center components in a factory. Prefabbing standardizes the uninterruptable power supplies, generators, security and other elements for consistency in Digital Realty's global colocation centers, Chong explained.

"[Colocation customers] are asking for different ways to grow with data center providers," said Robert DeVita, general manager of Cologix Inc. This means increasing power density in cabinets and no growth limitations from the power or cooling design in a particular facility.

"Successful colocation facilities fill up within months or a few years, and there's a definite chance of the data center running out of space," Digital Realty's Chong said.

A campus model enables data centers to expand without going through the entire search process again and dealing with interconnections and consistency of operations from multiple colo providers.

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