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International data center expansion fuses foreign with familiar

The U.S. data center building industry is well-established, but it's literally a whole new world when companies expand IT operations internationally.

With global corporate growth comes the need for international data center construction, staffing, maintenance and oversight in a foreign locale -- which introduces new IT challenges.

Over the next 15 years, the majority of data center growth will occur outside the U.S., said Scott Noteboom, a former data center executive at Apple and Yahoo!, and who is developing LitBit, a startup focused on converged infrastructure technologies for emerging markets.

In places like Sao Paulo, Brazil, and parts of Poland and Russia, there are growing markets consuming bandwidth and data, said Paul Vian, director of European operations for U.S.-based hosting provider Internap Network Services Corp.

"Major international data center companies can be found there building up infrastructure, as are local players," Vian said.

Some countries nationalize their data, so companies that work with customers in Brazil, for example, need to store data within that country instead of at a centralized data center in the U.S. Other enterprises build facilities close to end users to lower latency. Data centers in Miami no longer suffice for latency in Latin America, Vian said.

"It's about getting [enterprise] applications closer to the edge where they interact with the end users," said Gillis S. Cashman, a managing partner of M/C Partners investment group, and who sees this distributed trend occurring domestically.

U.S.-based data center engineering firms mostly have construction down seamlessly, but the way things are done in the U.S. doesn't work for all markets, Noteboom said.

"[International expansion is] more expensive, more complicated, and there's more babysitting," Noteboom said.

International data center building considerations

There are more factors involved in building a data center than construction licenses.

Data centers in emerging markets don't always have access to a reliable power grid system; operators need to consider alternative energy sources to supplement electricity from the grid.

New power options aren't so much about saving money as they are about letting you access a particular market, said Greg Carl, solutions architect at SyCom Technologies, an IT systems integration company based in Richmond, Va.

In the European Union, wind farms offset data center power draws, and in other areas, fuel cell generators could prove useful. The upfront cost and newness of fuel cells is off-putting to some data center operators, however.

Half of the problem with building IT resources in remote offices and data centers is local resources. Vian listed some qualitative considerations: "Are there constraints on telecom? Is business restrictively complicated or is the atmosphere unsafe? Are customers ready to pay you back for the investment? Is there established legal support for companies in the region?"

One methodology for international expansion is to build near major metropolitan areas to take advantage of connectivity, skilled workforce and end-user proximity, Noteboom said. Cities are also transportation hubs, so you can get hardware and people in and out of the data center handily.

However, that setting prohibits traditional data center footprint expansion, where more compute requires more space, cooling and power.

New data centers must be nimble, adapting the internal infrastructure alongside application demand, Noteboom said. A new build in Hong Kong, for example, needs to be able to adapt to environmental issues that could occur in five years -- what if industrial battery use is restricted due to environmental concerns? What if storage demand rapidly increases because of business success? What if the nearest backup site is 100 miles away, and downtime is not an option?

Connectivity options also vary widely from one metropolitan area to the next. If you're entering a new region, make a list of the network providers you need to run your business, and how many there are -- even if that list rises into double digits, advised Mike Hollands, director of connectivity at global colocation provider Interxion.

Different cities also have different price points for data center operations, due to energy and real estate costs, and other factors.

"Paris has very cheap energy costs in comparison to Frankfurt, which has the best connectivity in Europe," Hollands said. "If I'm paying for power usage, and I consume a lot of power, expanding in Frankfurt will add significant cost that isn't offset by the improved connectivity."

International colocation

Enterprises can move into colocation centers to access new or potentially unsafe markets, but that doesn't exempt the organization from certain geographical decisions.

To serve Russian end users, for example, a company must find a European location where it will get the best underlying connectivity to Russia's population. IT needs to determine who the network providers are and where their nodes connect, not just which colocation center is closest to the Russian border, Hollands said.

From SearchDataCenter international sites:

Data center decision cycles drawn out

India readies for cloud burst

German IT budgets outpace Europe (in German)

Mexico seeing 20% data center square footage growth (in Spanish)

Simply replicating the established model of data center location scouting, construction firms, and on-site management can prove slow and costly for companies that need IT infrastructure in place. Though Internap built data centers for its U.S. operations, it chose colocation to expand overseas.

"We were very familiar with what it takes to build successfully in U.S.," Vian said, but colocation abroad meant speed, fewer complications, and lower cost.

"U.S. customers deploying all over the world find even more inconsistencies globally [than domestically]," said Lee Kirby, chief technology officer at Uptime Institute LLC, which provides international data center building and operational standards.

As international data center growth outpaces U.S. expansion, few companies will be able to wait for a native data center specialist industry to evolve in other countries. For faster deployment, going to a colocation provider makes sense, Kirby said.

"[But] if you need a big 50 megawatt data center internationally, you're probably building that on your own," he said.

How companies build new capacity will reverberate back into the established data center design and construction industry.

"From a U.S. perspective, we need to watch how [innovation] happens in emerging markets without a workforce of data center specialists, and take our cues from them," Noteboom said.

Data center growth strategies born in these challenging locations will in turn make domestic expansion cheaper, faster, and easier to implement, he said.

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