As the internet industry has grown, data centres have sprung up around the world to facilitate the demand for connectivity. Modern-day life is 24/7 and 365, and businesses need to have a constant, consistent presence online. For any company, downtime costs money. Consumers will not tolerate failed page load attempts or slow connectivity, so it's imperative to keep websites running as efficiently and reliably as possible.
Companies know that they need a robust business infrastructure and many invest in their own hardware, especially if they have their own IT team. However, statistics show that an alarming number are storing servers inappropriately, leaving them susceptible to theft, fire or even malicious damage. There are a number of options for businesses when it comes to protecting their hardware estates and one of these options is colocation.
What is colocation?
Colocation is the industry-recognised best practice for an organisation housing its IT infrastructure and equipment in a purpose-built third-party data centre. Data centres offer a range of benefits that organisations can't generally realise internally, such as improved bandwidth, lower latency and higher levels of security, as well as more resilient power and cooling.
Put simply, data centre providers are experts at building these facilities, and they have the experience needed to store and protect the hardware of hundreds of businesses. Outsourcing this element of your business allows you to focus on the more important task of managing your company.
Data centres are playing a more and more critical role in the delivery of IT services these days. They increasingly underpin the reliability and delivery of critical services to clients and end users.
So, what are the benefits of colocation and why is it a reliable option for outsourcing your IT?
Who should colocate?
Depending on what kind of company you are and what you offer, the choice you're likely to be facing is whether to rent a server with a hosting company and let them manage it, or whether to colocate an existing infrastructure and hold on to responsibility for your IT operations.
Companies who have a competent IT team already might want to consider colocation as it provides that element of control whilst letting the company take advantages of the benefits that purpose-built data centres have to offer. Unlike managed hosting, colocation customers have to manage their IT infrastructure themselves, but benefit from being able to plug into the purpose-built data centre and utilise their 100 per cent uptime delivery on power, cooling and site security.
For businesses that have reinvested in or upgraded new generation IT infrastructure, colocation is also a good choice as those businesses will need to house it in an ideal environment, which is hard to create within their own premises. Realistically, any business providing resources, materials, sales or access to services via the internet can consider colocation services. Many data centres have offerings to suit a range of businesses, from quarter racks to full suites.
What are the benefits?
Current statistics can tell us a little about what companies prioritise when looking to colocate. Surveys show that availability, efficiency and total cost of ownership take precedent.
The environment presented by colocation service providers ensures an organisation's uptime, availability and service delivery. Providers will have a service-level agreement guaranteeing the standard of service customers can expect. At UKFast data centres, for instance, power is provided by N+1 UPS battery systems and N+1 on-site diesel generators for emergency backups. This ensures that, even if a power failure from the grid, there would be no loss of power to businesses housed in our data centres and therefore no downtime.
Third party data centres come under two different banners relating to connectivity. A data centre will either employ a single network carrier within their facility through which you would connect to the internet. The other type of data centres are carrier neutral data centres. Carrier Neutral data centres host several options (sometimes hundreds) surrounding carriers that are present within the facility, meaning that you have options when connecting to the outside world.
Carrier-neutral data centre operators like UKFast and LDeX equip their clients with a wide range of connectivity and communications options (including IP Transit, point to point, Ethernet and diverse dark fibre and wavelength) - allowing them to connect to their carrier of choice as simply, robustly and cost-effectively as possible. Colocating your infrastructure in a carrier neutral data centre gives you more options and higher levels of connectivity.
Organisations can achieve far greater efficiencies by using a third party's purpose-built data centres than attempting to build their own in a less than ideal environment. For an organisation to structure a data centre on site with N+1 and resilient power is exceedingly expensive compared to utilising a third party's pre-built data centre environment.
With purpose-built data centres, the providers will have invested the CapEx so users can simply plug into this infrastructure and take advantage of the resilient power, cooling and security that it provides. It also erases the need for organisations to cover the ongoing maintenance that this infrastructure requires, such as the power generators and cooling systems.
Hardware requires many things, and one of the most difficult to supply is a means of cooling. In an office environment it is problematic and ineffective. Data centres, however, can provide this requirement. Look for a data centre where Air Conditioning and Cold Aisle Containment is located in each data centre unit, delivering the optimum temperature (19 - 22 degrees C) for your IT equipment to operate in. This prevents the need for early refresh and ensures cost-efficiency.
Utilising Cold Aisle Containment, companies like UKFast ensure that they maintain a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE)of 1.3 by only cooling the areas of the data centre that require cooling, something else that is almost impossible to create in an office environment.
Whilst it is possible for a business to estimate how much bandwidth and other resources they will need, periods of growth can often increase that demand. With colocation, they can rent as much space as they need and scale it up as needed.
Colocation providers will often offer their customers a service called "remote hands". This means that, if a client wants to carry out an operation on their server, they don't necessarily need to go into the data centre. On-site technicians will carry out some services on the request of the customer although the kinds of services can differ from one provider to the next.
Colocation facilities provide levels of security and protection that aren't readily available to in-house office set ups, and they are able to pass on the benefits of their economies of scale. In running a facility for a number of organisations, they can provide a high level of security for all customers utilising that facility.
As data security is of the utmost importance, colocation providers will often ensure high levels of physical security around and throughout the facility. As well as on-site security staff, there are usually access control points within data centres, which only people who have been pre-approved may pass through. Customers' hardware is separated using secured racks, cages and even separate suites of a data centre. UKFast data centres have strict access protocol and procedures, razor wire prison fencing and gates to ensure security.
What to consider when choosing your data centre provider
There are many factors that might affect your choice of data centre, and it's worth paying particularly close attention to all of the below.
Data centre design and layout
Every colocation provider is different, from the type of service they offer to the data centre design, and it is important for companies looking to outsource their IT to evaluate their options carefully. Some providers will offer tours of their data centres. This kind of transparency often bodes well as it demonstrates their confidence in their facilities and their ability to look after your hardware and data. It says a lot about the level of service that you will receive if the data centre is well designed, redundantly powered and well-staffed.
As well as the "remote hands" offering, additional perks could be the provision of build rooms and meeting rooms within the data centre. Additions such as this, which demonstrate a genuine care for the customer, can be the deciding factors when comparing two otherwise similar data centre providers.
When looking to outsource your IT infrastructure to a third-party data centre, ensuring they have fire detection and suppression in place must be top on your list of priorities. Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus (VESDA) is an important standard. These highly-sensitive two-stage smoke detectors are linked to the DCIM system and monitored continually from a network operations centre. In the unlikely event of a fire, an environmentally-friendly gas-based fire-suppression system should be used, which can quickly extinguish any fire without damaging your IT equipment. Systems should be designed to minimise any disruption and ensure that any minor problem remains localised.
It is also wise to consider the location of the data centre. Some industry insiders have commented recently on the rising threat of terrorism on the London Docklands. It is the location of the UK's first major internet exchange and 98 per cent of internet traffic passes through it. The potential to disrupt communications, services and businesses in the country through a targeted attack on the Docklands data centre hub is very real, which is why some businesses are now choosing to store their data in other regions. As Manchester has such a rich history of computing innovation due to the pioneering work carried out at the University of Manchester in the mid-90s, it is increasingly being looked to as a viable alternative to London. After all, it is the location of the UK's second major Internet Exchange and is directly serviced by all Tier 1 carriers, with a wide selection of fibre providers that offer sub eight millisecond connectivity between Manchester and London.
There are a number of questions that organisations must ask themselves when choosing a data centre in which to locate their server/s. It is wise to look into the Service Level Agreement. Does it offer an uptime guarantee, rapid response guarantee or promise a high level of support? SLAs are a colocation provider's promise to you, their customer, that they will deliver certain things to you as standard, so you should feel completely able to interrogate them on this.
Support is something most often associated with managed hosting, but some providers are happy to help their colocation clients with technical issues too. On-site engineers can make all the difference.
PCI: When it comes to data centre accreditations, look out for providers who have PCI-compliant facilities. This is very important and it demonstrates a company's ability to process, transmit, store and protect cardholder data.
PAS: For companies concerned about reducing their carbon footprint, the accreditation to look for is the PAS 2060 certification. Being certified to this standard demonstrates how data centre providers have offset all CO2 emissions. The Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 2060 for the demonstration of carbon neutrality was published in June 2010 by The British Standards Institution (BSI.) It exists to help businesses reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, meet their environmental objectives and validate their carbon neutrality statements.
ISO: For further assurance of data protection, look for ISO accreditations. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) created these international standards to help consumers ensure that certain products and services are safe, reliable and of good quality. In terms of security and risk removal, look for ISO 27001.
Can you pay as you grow? If a company is anticipating growth or expansion then, in time, it may need more resources and more space. Some providers will require you to buy up surrounding space in advance, which is not cost-effective. Look for a provider that will allow you to pay as you grow, enabling you to increase your resources as and when you need them and only pay for what you are actively using. For SMEs, this is a great benefit.
It is also prudent to find out whether a provider's data centre is nearly full and, if so, whether they are building any further facilities. If their data centre is nearly full then there will be no space for a business to grow their hardware estate in the future.
Look out for hidden prices. Some providers will charge for CRC tax and others will not. In the same way, some providers have very high cabling charges whereas others will be more reasonable. This comes down to profit margins and suggests less of a concern with customer experience so put in some research and compare your options carefully to get the most cost-effective solution for your business.
How much experience does the colocation provider that you are considering have and in what areas? If the company offers cloud hosting then this might be something that you could easily migrate to in the future should the need arise.
What will the migration process be like when you choose a provider to take your server to? Migrating data, domains and other applications to a new environment is a specialist skill and many companies fear that this process will interrupt the availability of their website or applications and cause downtime. Some hosting providers offer an in-house migration service, which can save companies a lot of hassle.
Colocation provides much-needed options for businesses when it comes to their IT infrastructure. It's ideal for companies who want to plug into a third-party data centre for power, cooling, connectivity, and security, in order to reduce both capital expenditure and business risk.
Colocation services work for most organisations, especially those that are constantly changing and growing and whose IT infrastructure and requirements are moving and changing to meet the demands of their clients and end users.
Lawrence Jones is CEO of colocation, cloud and dedicated hosting provider UKFast. Formed in 1999, the company now has four of its own data centres and provides services to thousands of clients including British Cycling, RNLI and the NHS. This year, Lawrence won Director of the Year for a Small to Medium Company at the Institute of Directors (IoD) North West awards ceremony.
Image: Flickr (mikecogh; Sivaserver; HP)