Standardisation vs Customisation

How flexible is your colocation provider prepared to be and what are the financial implications for you, the customer?

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor DCS Europe Published 2023-08-03 09:32:36

Buy a suit off-the-peg and chances are it will fit fairly well, will do the job required of it to an acceptable level (i.e. see you through the necessary work and social functions for which it was bought), will last a few years (although fashion may change in the meantime!), and, almost certainly the most important factor – it won’t cost a fortune, unless you want a high end designer label.

Contrast this with having a custom-made suit fitted and made. It will fit like a glove, or a tailor-made suit, will almost certainly make you stand out from the crowd at any event which you attend, will last a long time thanks to the quality of the cloth, but such quality comes at a high price.

These days, there’s also something of a halfway option – the suit has basically been created, but it can be finished to your own requirements – trouser length, turn-ups or not etc. And the attendant characteristics are somewhere between the off-the-shelf and the bespoke offerings.

Of course, I may have lost most of my readers at the first mention of the word ‘suit’, as hardly anyone wears one any more. But I’m hoping most of you at least remember what a suit looks like and the process of shopping for one, even if you can’t remember when you bought your last one!

A data centre looks nothing like a suit. But, as with that increasingly rare garment, it does come in a range of options. And cost is very much the main deciding factor – although, when it comes to the data centre, we should be as interested in OPEX as CAPEX.

Off-the-peg colocation space provides the purchaser with almost all of the data centre infrastructure supplied as standard – you’ll be getting exactly the same solution as every other customer in the facility. All you have to do is bring along your hardware, place it in the rack(s), plug it in, close the cabinet door(s) and walk away. The colocation provider will provide a basic NOC service, alerting you to any potential problem, but the relatively low cost of this basic colocation option means that you won’t be given many, if any, ‘extras’. (If I can switch to a car analogy here, there won’t be a sun roof, aircon, heated seats, parking sensors and the like!).

At the other end of the data centre spectrum you’ll find the space-only option. If you have the necessary skills and expertise, you can then populate this space with your own choice of data centre infrastructure (allowing for the fact that at least some of the power and cooling infrastructure will be supplied by the provider, as well as the fire suppression system, backup power etc.) – from the cabinets, to the cabling, to the containment system. I suspect more businesses possess the necessary skills to populate a data centre than individuals do to fashion their own suit, but it’s still quite a big ask. And, crucially, if you want space only, then you’ll be needing to take a sizeable chunk of data centre space (i.e. a whole dedicated room), otherwise you are unlikely to be allowed to design your own space.

For many organisations, a colocation solution somewhere between the basic and the bespoke will be the right solution. And that’s when you will discover how flexible, or not, your data centre provider is prepared to be. You may well be happy with the cabinets, the racks, the cooling, the UPS, the cabling layout, the backup generator, but you may well want to know that the power supply is from a 100% renewable source – how can your provider demonstrate this to you? You might have some need for high density space – you have a high-performance compute application. Can your colocation provide the necessary infrastructure to support this (indeed, do they want to)? You need to reserve a certain amount of space and power to start with, but would like the option for more space and power as your business grows. Most providers will cater for this flexibility and scalability, but the way in which they charge for this option could well differ. You might just insist that the UPS system on which you will rely is one of your choosing and not the providers choice. Will they allow this? 

And then there’s liquid cooling. There are different ways of doing this, but which way(s), if any, can your colocation provider support? 

More generally, you might want to see your provider’s sustainability credentials and if they are not what you might expect, you might want to understand whether or not they are genuinely committed to making the necessary operational improvements over time. And attitudes to physical security can vary from provider to provider. Yes, they all take the matter seriously, but the way in which they choose to implement access control – to the facility, to the data centre hall, to your actual cabinets – can vary significantly. Are they flexible when it comes to providing the security you require? And what about the who and when of accessing your IT space? How easy is it for any of your suppliers to deliver to and/or work on site on your behalf? And are there any time constraints in terms of when you can access your space?

In general terms, the more flexibility, the more bespoke service you require, the more this will cost. However, the colocation space is becoming increasingly competitive, so it doesn’t always follow that doing things differently should automatically come with a price tag attached. 

It’s also worth remembering that there is a fair variety of data centre facilities out there. So, rather than expect your existing provider to change their whole business model to suit you, it may well make sense to find a facility which is better matched to your needs.

The starting point to understand what it is you need from your IT partner – hence how you can identify the right one? Take the time to analyse exactly what you need from your data centre. What’s crucial, what’s important, and what’s more of a ‘nice to have’. Once you have drawn up this comprehensive document, you can share it with potential providers and it should soon become obvious which ones can best meet your requirements.