When is a Tier IV data center not really a Tier IV data center? When its design drawings were certified as a Tier IV data center, but it was built to meet Tier III standards.
That's the situation in which the Uptime Institute LLC, a data center organization that creates and certifies the Tier standards and other awards, found itself in the past few years. It prompted a move, which goes into place this month, that eliminates the awarding of tier certifications for data center design. Instead, Uptime certifications will be awarded only for completed projects that meet the standards for data center critical infrastructure.
"There were issues where data centers were using design certificates to market their data centers," said Matt Stansberry, Uptime's director of content and publications. "There was a lot of pressure to make sure people were not misleading the market."
The tiers -- which run from Tier I and build upon the lower tier's requirements up to Tier IV -- are a standardized methodology used to determine the physical infrastructure's availability in a data center.
Uptime certification of a data center design serves as a proof point for an investment team or someone from an enterprise to show to management.
"It wasn't supposed to be a marketing point," Stansberry said.
The new system won't change at what point in the data center design and build process Uptime Institute gets involved, and won't lessen its involvement in the review of a design, Stansberry said. It also won't change the cost to get the Uptime tier certification.
Steve Harrisvice president of data center development for Forsythe Data Centers
Uptime declined to provide pricing information, but Stansberry called the cost of Uptime's certification "literally a rounding error on a capital project" and said the value of a certification far exceeds its cost.
The changes were made "in response to the recommendation from tier certification awardees and clients of commercial data centers for enhanced accountability," according to Uptime.
"I'm glad that Uptime is addressing the issue," said Dan Allen, vice president of technical operations for DataBank, a Dallas-based colocation and managed services provider.
Data center operators want design certifications
But Uptime may have gone too far by removing the ability for a data center operator to tout a tier rating before the project is complete, he said.
"It hinders us from the presale perspective to communicate to the customer a tier rating," Allen said.
Others agree -- including Dave Leonard, chief data center officer at ViaWest -- a Las Vegas-based colocation provider accused of marketing its Tier III data center as Tier IV because the design received a Tier IV certification.
Leonard said he is disappointed with the Uptime Institute's decision because customers benefit from a third-party certification that the planned data center, when built to the certified design documents, will be certifiable as a constructed facility.
"A lot of service providers -- including ViaWest -- build facilities in a phased approach, using the design certification of the entire planned data center as a guide," he said.
In March, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt asked ViaWest to explain how the marketing of its Las Vegas data center was not violating the state's provisions on deceptive trade practices.
ViaWest, Leonard said, had been singled out by its competitors when, according to the Uptime Institute's certification database, there are dozens of Tier III and Tier IV design certifications from several different service providers without corresponding constructed facility certifications.
"The Uptime Institute offers the gold standard of certifications in our industry, and it didn't establish itself as the gold standard by responding hastily to isolated events," he said. "I'm confident the initial conversations leading to this decision started several years ago."
To date, no resolution to the complaint has been made public.
There have been a "handful of prominent cases" where projects were designed to one standard, but not built, and there are probably other less publicized examples, Stansberry said.
Uptime's COO Julian Kudritzki had addressed the distinction between the two certifications back in May.
"Tier Certification of Design Documents is a place holder, which affirms that the design documents meet criteria for a certain Tier level. Tier Certification of Constructed Facility is the true test of the resiliency by completing on-site analysis and demonstrations to prove that the facility was constructed as designed," Kudritzki wrote.
The design certification gave data center operators a way to market and sell colocation space before a project is complete, Allen said. The latest changes will not allow data center operators to publicize a tier until the project is built and commissioned.
The previous policy, which gave design stamps a two-year expiration date, had been in place since January 2014.
"I think that's perfectly acceptable," he said. "I'm open to any changes in the rules to allow us to get that design certification."
Tier certification violations common
ViaWest is not being penalized, but the rest of the colocation industry is, Allen said.
"I can come up with a Tier IV design and get it approved, but to not build it is deceiving," he said.
The Uptime certification process was "very thorough and in-depth," and DataBank spent a lot of time and money to achieve its certification, Allen said. The process works well, as long as it isn't abused, he said.
Even before this month's change, Kudritzki strongly cautioned buyers to be wary of commercial data centers using a design certification to supplant a construction certification.
Specifically, some examples of where a data center design fell short of the completed project include poor integration of complex systems, a lack of thorough commissioning and/or compressed commissioning schedules, design changes, substitution of materials or products and intentionally building a facility contrary to the design, according to Kudritzki.
In reviewing hundreds of projects, Uptime found that construction certifications make contractors and data center service providers more cautious about "interpreting contract language" and making discretionary changes to complex systems, according to Kudritzki.
"There were already steps in place to make sure that if the design was not built, they would not have the certification," Stansberry said.
The misuse of Uptime's tier-level certification goes back nearly a decade. In 2006, Uptime Institute's then-president Ken Brill warned against the use of terms such as "near Tier-3 data center" and "Tier-3 plus" -- tiers that simply don't exist.
More on data center certifications
There are several other data center certifications, including the International Data Center Authority's Infinity Paradigm that uses a pyramid system to rank data centers based on service availability and quality, plus the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers' standards and recommendations for ventilation and air conditioning installations.
Steve Harris, vice president of data center development for Forsythe Data Centers Inc., said he's heard concerns about the two different tier certifications for a long time.
Forsythe recently had its 221,000-square-foot data center in Elk Grove Village, Ill. receive a Tier III certification for a constructed facility. The process to get a design certification was lengthy, involved, time-consuming and not easy, he said.
"It would have been much less trouble to draw up a design for a Tier IV data center and build it to Tier II," he said.
Harris said he knew he could stop after receiving the design certification, but the company also knew that stamp would eventually go away.
"Quite frankly, I like the public acknowledgement," he said about the certification of the constructed facility, noting it is one of two Tier III facilities in Illinois.
Forsythe pursued tier certification because the company's team believed the new data center would have an advantage in showing it is robust, reliable and redundant, Harris said.
The interior suites will be constructed in four phases and Harris intended to seek tier certification for each phase.
"From the get go, we told all of our clients we are going for certification for design and construction," Harris said. "I tout both of those certifications."
Next spring, he said, he expects to begin the process seeking certification of its operational efficiency from Uptime.
Harris did acknowledge the possible challenges of marketing a colocation facility prior to construction without a certification, but said one option could be to show potential customers that the company has engaged Uptime Institute and show proof that the design drawings are under review.
Plus, certification allows any design issues to be addressed early on.
"You'll have a hard time and a costly remediate process to fix problems once the project is under construction," Harris said.
"There's no reason for an enterprise data center to do this, because they would only be fooling themselves," he added.
The changes apply to North American data centers that offer colocation, hosting, cloud or other commercial services.
Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyperconverged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT.
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