DATA CENTRES: Nice data centre: Now show me what you can do with it

DATA CENTRES: Nice data centre: Now show me what you can do with it

Designs on data. During the tech boom, many big corporations and Web hosting specialists spent a small fortune buying hefty amounts of real estate for the construction of Internet data centres.

Considering the data explosion the world experienced throughout the 80s and 90s, it's not surprising many saw the need to build what in all fairness could be described as architectural monstrosities to store it. Considering the impact of the always-on Internet, it's also not surprising that data centre operators went to some excruciating effort to ensure uptime for applications and data.

But if you build it, the customers aren't necessarily going to come. This is something that most of Australia's leading service providers found out as they learnt how the value-add issue that applies to products was starting to apply to the services they were selling as well. Yet that was only after they invested heavily in infrastructure.

"A blank cheque was used to pay for this building," says Hostworks CEO Marty Gauvin, as he and service delivery manager Richard Brown give a guided tour of their military-style complex.

The Adelaide facility was built to survive nothing short of an apocalypse. Built 14 years ago by the State Bank of South Australia for data processing, the money lavished upon the facility is quite phenomenal.

The building is built on a raised platform to cut down any chance of a ram raid and there are enough sharp objects on the roof to make it very difficult to land a helicopter. There are green pillars littered all the way around the building, transmitting an infrared beam that will sound an alarm in the guard's area when broken. The guard will know exactly where you are because there are cameras scattered all over the property.

The building was designed to withstand an earthquake, but also to be resilient against an attack from external forces. That's fine if you're in a post-September 11 panic, but how about the data itself? How is it protected?

The whole facility, Brown assures me, is built with contingency and redundancy in mind. Coming into the building are two pipes carrying town water from two different suppliers, and three electrical feeds from two different sub-stations, all coming down diverted paths into the block. In addition there are five fibre feeds into the building - one from ETSA (Electrical Trust of South Australia), two from Telstra from two different exchanges, and two from Optus from two different exchanges. The Telstra and Optus cables don't cross each other's path at any point - the closest they get is about four metres as they penetrate the foundations of the building.

There are four separate data centre rooms, which are "two-hour fire retardant" in relation to each other. Each room has a minimum of three independent power supplies. There is no single point of failure in each room either - every rack has dual power supplies, every server has dual memories.

It all might sound a bit Get Smart, but it's not only Hostworks that takes the physical security and redundancy of its data centre very seriously. Telstra has an Internet data centre smack-bang in the middle of the Sydney CBD but doesn't want us telling you exactly where it is. Each floor in the building, the security guard assures me, is built like a bunker. Telstra goes to five levels of physical security - there are swipe cards upon entry, alarm systems and video surveillance, even a biometrics system which scans and authenticates the fingerprints of people accessing the facility.

Unisys Data Centre, also in Sydney, might have been built a long time before the Internet boom but it has all the necessary geek stuff - rooms full of batteries and UPS systems, diesel generators, and every possible precaution when it comes to physical security and continuous uptime.

Large and sensitive customers, suchas airlines and banks, have their systems locked in cages within the data centre itself.

With all of these precautions in place at most data centres, how do they differentiate themselves? According to Terry Carter, marketing manager for Fujitsu Australia, the age of a given data centre is the first place to start. He says there are many "phase one" data centres that were built for traditional outsourcing deals and mainframe management. But these centres, like two that Fujitsu recently abandoned to consolidate its customers into a newer facility, lack the Internet connectivity, large rack-mounted systems and other advances that modern facilities provide.

"In the last couple of years, data centres were built to excess based on expected growth that didn't eventuate," Carter says. "These have a capability well above and beyond what we've built in previous years."

Paul Gleeson, business director for global outsourcing at Unisys Australia, disagrees, saying that high connectivity, security and redundancy are a given for any data centre, regardless of age. "You wouldn't be contracted to run half of these systems without such security and redundancy measures in place," he says. "Customers expect it as standard, as part of the service."

Mine host is your host. Gleeson points out that the hosting market is seeing considerable consolidation at present. Intel, for example, recently scrapped its Web hosting business after less than three years of operation. In Australia, its operations were managed at a third-party facility owned by WorldCom, a company that is in serious financial difficulties of its own at present.

Similarly, US Carrier Exodus Communications built a lavish facility in Sydney before it ran into financial problems. At the time, the local services branch of Fujitsu Australia had been assessing whether to continue with two older-generation data centres or build a new one. The withdrawal of Exodus from Australia as it went bust allowed Fujitsu to move in and buy a world-class, modern data centre at well below what it would have cost to build it. "I think there will be further consolidation in the market," says Carter. "Too many companies have invested beyond a reasonable rate of return."

The problem for companies that have made big investments in data centres, Gleeson speculates, is that there are plenty of them around and not enough market demand for everybody to pay off the investment.

"I often wonder why people continue to build all of these big facilities," he says. "They'll all come in handy if there's a boom in indoor cricket or netball."

Moore's Law has had an effect on the size of machines just as it has on their processing power. The amount of processed transactions and data stored on a mainframe that was state of the art 15 to 20 years ago can now be served by a handful of racks.

"When we first started doing this, we were getting about three servers per rack," says Hostworks' Gauvin. "Now we are getting about 20 servers per rack. Each individual server is also getting more powerful."

So much so that when the State Bank of South Australia finished building what is now Hostworks' data centre, it found that the equipment the rooms were storing had shrunk to about half the size of the specifications the centre was built on. Hostworks has survived to date, and is serving over 15 per cent of Internet page views in Australia from a room that is little more than 100 square metres. There is a larger room in the complex, fully fitted out, that has more than 300 square metres of space. Hostworks has only just begun finding a need for it.

Similarly, Telstra's Sydney data centre appears to be using very little of its capacity of approximately 2,000 racks.

In recent weeks, UK company Global Switch opened a 25,000 square metre facility in Sydney's Darling Harbour, hoping to attract large companies to rent out the space. Built at a cost of $160 million, only one tenant had moved in when the centre was launched.

Carter says there is an excess of data centre space in Australia, what he and others call the "empty data centre" syndrome. He says the data centres of the future will most likely be differentiated by which operators are offering managed services, not just space for rent.

Are they being served

A data centre, Gleeson says, is only as impressive as the range and quality of services you can offer from within it. Too many companies have failed by investing millions of dollars that are hard to recoup in the short term. To Unisys, a data centre is only part of its services portfolio and not a means to an end. It is merely the infrastructure from which services such as network and desktop management are launched.

Telstra, too, is talking up the concept of managed services. Telstra recently rolled its enterprise services back into Telstra proper to provide customers with a one-stop shop for managed services. It will still, as always, offer connectivity and managed hosting, but will complement these services with storage on demand, backup and disaster-recovery services, managed security and antivirus solutions, and managed WAN, LAN and desktop solutions. Telstra believes that there is demand for such services in the market, with the percentage of its top 100 customers using managed services increasing from 54 per cent to 68 per cent over the last three years.

Fujitsu is also banking on such services - alongside its traditional maintenance, network management and call centre support, the company is making investment opportunities in other data centre-based services such as "capacity on demand" storage, processing and bandwidth.

"This physical infrastructure, and the connectivity we have running into it, is as good as it gets," says Gauvin as we walk out of the Hostworks facility. "But you can put it aside. We have to take it up to the next level. We just bought a SAN [storage area network], and might get some support infrastructure for messaging. We will build new products and services, not so much to acquire new customers, but because you have to add value to your existing customers."

IT&T analyst Paul Budde agrees. He believes there are two types of data centre in the market: those that offer a commodity-based vanilla service of "space to rent", and those that provide services to clients that actually generate business.

Budde hopes that it is only a matter of time before the network capacity a data centre provides to its corporate clients can be matched by high data speeds for consumers. When such a time comes, he believes the most successful data centre operators will be those that offer better communication between clients and their customers.

Rather than just run networks and computers, the data centre of the future might be managing CRM systems, Budde says. "At the moment, unfortunately, most data centres are doing the former and are only slowly moving to the latter."

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