Data center colocation strikes the right balance between building a private data center and spinning up applications in the cloud or with a managed service for Carbonite, Rhapsody and Activision Blizzard.
One of the main reasons data center managers from these companies chose colocation over running their own private data centers is cost, though the exact savings can be difficult to determine because prices vary according to the size of the company, network bandwidth, local power prices and the local building environment.
"I couldn't even begin to speculate the costs we save over owning our own [data center] as it is simply much too significant," said Keith Archer, vice president of infrastructure and operations for Activision Blizzard Inc., the game publisher behind the Call of Duty and World of Warcraft franchises. "You can't even compare when you take into account redundancy of power, cooling, circuits, etc. … and the addition of headcount. It would be tens [to] hundreds of millions of dollars for an equivalent space."
Colocation vs. the alternatives: private data centers, cloud and wholesale
Activision and its subsidiaries have colocation space with several providers, including AT&T, Equinix, Corsite and Telia, and most recently, with a company called Switch Las Vegas, which runs a facility it calls SuperNAP. Multiple national networking backbones meet at the Las Vegas facility, which is also in the zone of the country that is least susceptible to natural disasters but still accessible by car or plane via an international airport.
All of these factors played into Activision's decision to colocate its disaster recovery infrastructure at SuperNAP.
"The back end infrastructure of a data center or the requirements to keep equipment up and running can be a very expensive endeavor and frankly out of our direct expertise," said Paul Vandegrift, director of partner and vendor management for Rhapsody International, a subscription-based online music service in the U.S.
When Rhapsody spun off from Real Networks about a year and a half ago, it moved into a data center colocation environment managed by Internap Network Services Corp., an international data center, IP networking and managed service provider with 11 facilities in the U.S., as well as in London and Amsterdam. With colocation also come economies of scale, allowing for things like redundant backup generators, Internet carriers and power switching systems -- something Rhapsody couldn't have built on its own.
Completely managed services from cloud service providers also offer economies of scale, but moving out of Real Networks and into a cloud computing model would've been too much change all at once, Vandegrift said. There's another step beyond colocation that more mature companies may take as they build up data center expertise, and that's wholesale space, according to Kai Gray, vice president of operations for online backup service provider Carbonite Inc.
With colocation services, the vendor provides power, racks, external networking and some value-add services; with wholesale data center space, only the building and external power are provided.
Colocation is best "at the [point in] the lifecycle where you haven't built up a large data center operations group," said Gray. "As you get bigger, and we've gotten to that point, [you're just] looking for very stable low-cost space and power."
Finding a colocation provider -- things to consider
Word of mouth is how all of these companies found their colocation providers, and IT community chatter can also help to determine which providers to avoid as well, according to Carbonite's Gray.
"I spent a lot of time at data center conferences and you quickly understand the landscape; who the providers are, and who's going where," he said.
What companies should look for is a combination of the data center's track record, critical systems, single points of failure and the robustness of the engineering that went into the building, Gray said.
Then there are questions some IT pros overlook.
"Do the biometric readers work 100% of the time when you're trying to get into the data center?" said Gray. "If you show up at two in the morning, are the security folks actually there and alert and able to let you in in a hurry?"
The "greenness" of a colocation facility can cut costs but also can tell a prospective customer a lot about the engineering that went into a data center. For example, when Carbonite first moved in to Internap's facility in Boston, Internap had invested in relatively new technologies like ultrasonic humidification, Gray said.
"It was a good indication to us that a lot of planning had gone into the data center," he said. "It gave us more confidence that the engineering was solid."
How a vendor provides networking is also an important consideration, Rhapsody's Vandegrift said. Internap offers a value-add service it calls Managed Internet Routing Optimization (MIRO), which load-balances among the multiple network providers that feed each Internap facility to give customers' traffic the fastest rather than shortest route through the network.
"That was a plus because for us to bring in our own carriers and do all our load-balancing would be just another layer for us to manage," he said.
Network bandwidth was an important consideration for Activision's Archer when he evaluated SuperNAP, as was security -- the facility also houses resources for the federal government. Power density also proved attractive; SuperNAP offers a system it calls t-scif, which contains hot and cold aisles between equipment so that air doesn't mix between them and more equipment can be packed into tighter spaces.
Colocation, data center tiers and downtime
When choosing colocation space, the overarching question is: How much downtime can you afford?, Vandegrift said.
"The smaller that number [is], the more the cost of a data center space is going to be," he said.
All data centers have problems, though.
"There's not a data center that I've ever heard of that hasn't run into some sort of failure somewhere ... and a critical component is to understand how [the provider] might react to that," said Carbonite's Gray.
Both Vandegrift and Gray said they had experienced power-related outages at Internap's facilities but praised the vendor's response in a crisis, saying executives flew to the area to consult with customers, review the root cause and provide information about future remediation.
"These data centers and colos come at a price per tier and this tier that we have entered in at with Internap is working at the level we paid for," said Vandegrift.