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Tier IV data center comes online as new certification players emerge

New options for data center certification, including UL's debut and the Tier 5 standard from Switch, aim to more easily prove data center resiliency and reliability.

Two new tier certification programs that grade data center facilities will challenge longtime incumbent Uptime Institute LLC at a time when customers demand highly reliable data center capacity, along with a succinct explanation of the infrastructure behind it.

The Uptime data center tier standards are a methodology widely used to explain the resiliency of data center infrastructure. They are often included in a company's request for proposal prior to renting colocation space or building a new data center. Standards range from a Tier I data center with nonredundant systems to a fully fault-tolerant Tier IV data center, the second of which in the United States will open later this summer.

The issuance of tier standards has tripled in the past five years amid surging data center capacity demand -- Uptime issued its 1,000th tier certification last week, and another 419 projects are in queue, said Lee Kirby, president of Seattle-based Uptime. Enterprises that expand their footprint use tier ratings to ensure consistency and reliability across their global data centers.

"More and more companies are counting on the reliability of their infrastructure, and they need to be able to treat it as a utility," Kirby said.

Tier data center competitors

Now entering the data center certification arena is UL LLC. Previously known as Underwriters Laboratories, UL has a long history as a nonprofit testing and certification organization, and it became a for-profit corporation in 2012. Its certification mark is on 22 billion products in the U.S., which range from electrical equipment to smoke detectors, as well as a modular data center safety certification. UL's new international data center certification program, UL 3223, will address operational risks around data center infrastructure, such as fire safety, life safety and security.

A third company, called Switch, claims its new Tier 5 standard evaluates data center resiliency and redundancy, plus other factors such as long-term power capabilities, available carriers, physical security and network security, and use of renewable energy. Switch runs colocation data centers in Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.

The two new data center certification standards reflect the fact that the data center industry wants an easier way to categorize facilities, according to one expert.

There is still clearly a need to describe in simple terms, without looking at drawings, how a data center provides maximum uptime and availability.
Zahl Limbuwalafounder, Romonet Ltd.

"The challenge the industry has -- whoever's tier standard you look at -- is that there is still clearly a need to describe in simple terms, without looking at drawings, how a data center provides maximum uptime and availability," said Zahl Limbuwala, founder and executive director of Romonet Ltd., which provides data center analytics software.

There have been several attempts in the past 20 years to replace Uptime's four tiers, such as Tier III plus or Switch's Tier 5, but these can add confusion over tier standards -- often only for an organization's own benefit. Limbuwala said facility availability and redundancy at Switch are "probably the best [he has] ever seen." But the company's creation of a "Tier 5" certification also lets it claim it has the first tier-five data center, he said.

Pros and cons for top-tier data centers

The majority of Uptime tier-certified data centers are Tier III, but new Tier I and Tier II data centers are now designed for cloud computing and hyperscale data center operators, Kirby said. Most enterprises can't tolerate a data center that is anything less than 100% available because the applications are not set up to failover automatically. Banks and telecommunications companies are most likely to want a Tier IV data center, and some countries, including Italy and Indonesia, have several Tier IV data centers.

Ofek Technologies, a boutique cloud computing company with two data centers in Israel, is in search of data center space in the United States and will only consider Tier III or higher data centers to meet its uptime requirements, said Nir Ashkenazi, the company's CTO.

Data Shelter LLC, in Fort Pierce, Fla., has just completed a Tier IV data center that uses Uptime's certification. The facility sits in a tornado- and hurricane-resistant former nuclear bomb shelter that is mostly underground, with 2-foot-thick rebar walls and a 9-foot-thick floor. A portion of Switch's SUPERNAP Las Vegas campus is also certified as Tier IV.

Data Shelter will target healthcare and financial services companies, government agencies and government contractors, and cloud and managed service providers.

For years, Uptime has battled data center companies that obtained Tier IV certification for a data center design, but later built it to less than Tier IV standards -- but still marketed it as a Tier IV site.

"We always had the vision of a Tier IV data center; we thought it was worth it to bring it to that level," said Data Shelter CTO Mark Oxley. "We now know why a lot of people don't do it -- it was quite an undertaking."

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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