Is the customer always right when it comes to data centre customisation?

The best possible solution is often collaboration between the customer and the colocation provider.

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2024-02-07 15:15:18

There are a variety of reasons why today’s digital businesses might make bespoke demands of their data centre provider. Ensuring the optimised performance of the IT load which they place inside the facility is one such reason. Increasingly important as the profile of the applications (high performance computing, AI and the like) which run on the IT hardware is becoming more and more demanding. Being confident that the data centre’s characteristics and components meet the ESG credentials of the customer is another compelling reason as to why the customer just might want certain changes made. Cost is the third main reason. This could be as simple as the customer wanting their connectivity supplier of choice connected to the data centre, as they have struck a particularly good contract with them at other locations and want to be able to access the same deal in the new facility. Or it could be the much more complicated reason of wanting to ensure that the customer is confident that they are getting the best possible data centre performance for the money they are paying.

In all these cases, the starting point should be an open, two-way conversation, where the customer presents their requirements over and above the data centre provider’s standard offering, and the provider asks questions as to the reasons behind these requested changes. The end result being that the provider may well agree to make certain changes, but could also help the customer to understand that a different approach, already available within the standard colocation offering, could do the job just as well as the requested customisation – and save money in the process.

While individual customer priorities might vary, I suspect that for most, if not all, cost is still the number one consideration. Customers will want to be confident that they are receiving great value for money from their colocation provider. If a customer believes that there is a way in which they can either save some money and/or increase the performance of their IT workload housed in the colocation provider’s facility by making a certain change, then the provider has a decision to make. As in the example at the start of the blog, it may be something as simple as adding a customer’s own preferred connectivity supplier. Or the customer might have read of some new data centre infrastructure development which offers performance improvements, cost savings and the like. Does the colocation provider implement such a technology upgrade for the customer? Is such an upgrade on the roadmap for all customers? Clearly, much of the data centre infrastructure supplied by the colocation partner will be standard throughout the data centre, but there should also be some ‘wriggle room’ for customers to ask for some infrastructure customisation, especially if they believe there’s a cost saving to be achieved.

If cost-saving is the number one customisation priority, then I suspect it is closely followed by the increasing demand for higher and higher data centre densities which is driving the need for, if not customisation, at least the need for data centres to be upgraded to cope with the significant infrastructure demands placed on them by the huge AI learning clusters. Colocation providers are aware of this trend and many are developing, or have already developed, areas within their data centre(s) which can support AI workloads. Customers have the choice to either find a data centre which has been built specifically to cater for such workloads, wait for their existing colocation provider to provide such AI infrastructure, or actively canvass their provider to carry out the necessary infrastructure upgrade work.

Of course, the colocation provider has the decision to make as to whether or not to cater for the AI explosion and, if so, whether to do so within their existing data centre estate, or to construct a new, AI-optimised facility.

There is no easy or obvious answer as to how customers and providers will resolve this AI ‘conundrum’, but I imagine that customers who have an excellent relationship with their existing colocation provider would much rather see the AI infrastructure added to the facility in which they are currently housed, or be offered the chance set up any AI workloads they might have in an alternative, AI-ready data centre owned and operated by their current provider, rather than have to move elsewhere.

And the AI infrastructure is not insignificant – significantly more power required, more cooling to address the extra heat generated, stronger cabinets and racks, solid concrete floors might need to replace any raised floors…

In terms of ESG requirements, a customer’s primary motive in seeking some level of data centre customisation will almost certainly revolve around the need to address Scopes 1-3 when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In particular, Scope 3, which covers an organisation’s complete supply chain. The good news is that the colocation providers themselves are embarked on sustainability programmes aimed at the ultimate NetZero target. So, customers requesting sustainability-focused changes (how data centre infrastructure is sourced or how the provider’s staff travel to work) may well find that the colocation provider is one step ahead.

Nevertheless, the data centre provider has choices to make in terms of how far they are willing to accommodate ESG-based customisation or changes. In most cases, the customer and data centre provider will have the same overall ESG objectives, but their rate of travel might be somewhat different. A healthy two-way partnership could well be the catalyst for a good pace of continuous change.

Of course, the E of ESG covers only a third of the subject area. The S and the G - social and governance may well be on the radar of a colocation provider’s customer base as well. The colocation provider might be invited or encouraged by one or more customer to address certain aspects of their social responsibilities, their diversity outlook, their corporate governance. The colocation provider will have the choice as to whether or not to engage with their customers on these topics and to make certain changes as a result.

In conclusion, when it comes to customisation or more general data centre infrastructure changes, the best possible solution is collaboration between the customer and the colocation provider. A healthy dialogue between the two, with both sides focusing on continuous improvement and customer-focused value, should go a long way to ensuring that the colocation provider’s facility is optimised for the customer’s specific requirements wherever reasonably practical and affordable. Yes, the definition of ‘reasonably practical and affordable’ might vary from customer to customer and provider to provider, but, ultimately, both parties have to decide to what extent they want to work together or when the time is right to end the partnership.

One final thought, when engaging with any potential colocation provider, customers will very quickly understand just how helpful and flexible their potential supplier intends to be. They will encounter everything from the Henry Ford response of ‘you can have any colo-ur so long as it’s black’ to a ‘built to suit’ approach, where the colocation provider will pretty much build out a customer’s space to their detailed specification. Getting the build-out right up front, however customised or standard it might be, is the important starting point for any data centre/customer relationship moving forwards.