Tempting though it is to think that, in this customer service golden age, all your suppliers are just waiting to fulfil your every need, the reality can be depressingly different. Listening to a managed service provider speaking at a recent channel event, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience to be amazed at the customer win story he related. In simple terms, the end user had had no access to their data for 48 hours, eventually had to contact their existing IT service supplier to tell them of the problem, and they then had to wait a further two days before access to some, not all, of their data was restored. So, the customer service bar was set spectacularly low in this example, and the end user was relieved, delighted and surprised in equal measure to discover that there were companies out there who really did value their business!
An extreme example, maybe, but a good illustration of the fact that the excellent, good, bad and ugly (just a little too long-winded for a film title?!) all exist when it comes to the after-sales experience.
Turning our attention to the colocation industry specifically, no matter what has been discussed or promised in the run-up to a contract being signed, it is the Service Level Agreement (SLA) that is the key document or part of the overall contract in terms of specifying exactly what is (and isn’t) being provided by the colocation provider and, perhaps most importantly, what happens when something goes wrong.
Having emphasised the importance of the SLA, it might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that it’s not actually the specific content of such a document that matters, rather the intention behind it. By this I mean that, if the SLA states that, in the event of an outage of more than, say, six hours, the customer receives free power for a month, the reality is that such an outage the week before Christmas might cost an online retail company many, many times the compensation specified. In other words, failing the creation of a digital SLA document that takes up several racks of storage, whereby every possible eventuality is itemised with varying degrees of compensation specified, the SLA should, hopefully, encapsulate the intention of data centre provider and customer to work together, or partner, to ensure that the relationship develops to the benefit of both.
In other words, when a problem does occur, it’s rather more helpful for colocation provider and customer to combine resources to come up with a speedy solution, rather than for the customer to point the finger at the provider at the same time as the year’s profits are vanishing into the ether.
And that’s not to suggest that an SLA is meaningless, or that the colocation provider has no legal obligations to the customer. No, but an argument over an SLA that ends up in the law courts, well there’s only one winner in that scenario, and that’s neither the provider nor the customer.
To summarise, the discussion around an SLA, and the data centre provider’s attitude towards the document’s content, are the best possible indication as to how the provider is likely to treat you as a customer once the contract has been signed (and remember that a data centre provider who is ‘too relaxed’ about an SLA is just as dangerous as one who wants everything documented in the minutest detail).
If SLAs are a minefield, somewhat easier to understand should be a colocation provider’s backup, service and support offerings. The provider’s backup plan, also called the business continuity or disaster recovery plan, will almost certainly offer different levels of resilience at differing price points. At the most basic level, you might sign up to a backup plan that guarantees only that, in the event of any kind of service outage, the colocation provider will restore access to your infrastructure and data within an agreed timeframe. At the other end of the scale, you might want a backup plan that saves all your data and applications to the cloud, and also mirrors them to another data centre in a geographically separate location. So, if the data centre experiences an outage and the same outage is affecting the cloud provider who has one copy of your backup, you can still access the second copy at the flick of a switch. Put simply, you can agree with your colocation provider anything from no, or minimal, backup, right up to multiple backups in multiple locations, so no matter what combination of disastrous circumstances, you’ll always have access to your applications and data. All you have to decide is the value you place on your different applications and data sets.
In terms of service and support, as with the backup plan above, colocation providers offer different levels and price points. You might want to carry out all the work on your IT hardware and network cables housed in the data centre yourself, or you might be happy to pay the colocation provider to carry out maintenance. Similarly, if an item of yours fails in the facility, you might want to send a member of staff to resolve the issue, or you might ask the colocation provider to effect the repair or even replace the equipment for you.
Running alongside what we might term ‘physical interaction’ between the colocation provider and your equipment, is the Service Management Centre or SMC. This is where the status of the data centre, and all the infrastructure and IT equipment within it, is monitored constantly. The SMC might be staffed by the provider’s employees, or the colocation provider might use one of several specialist third party SMCproviders. When you commit to a provider, it’s worth knowing who is running the SMC, and if it is a third party organisation, understanding how they work with the cdata centre provider – if only so that, if something does go wrong, you understand whether it will be the colocation provider direct, or the NOC provider, who will be dealing with the issue.
Two final points to consider. Firstly, before you sign any contract, a colocation provider should be happy for you to talk to one or more existing customers. Such a conversation will give you a ‘warts and all’ overview of the provider, which might be nearer the truth than the glossy brochures or impressive website.
Finally, artificial intelligence, automation, IoT and the like are already making a major impact when it comes to the managing and monitoring of data centre facilities and infrastructure. Ask your colocation provider what information is available to you the customer in terms of understanding how your footprint within their facility is operating. It’s no longer good enough for a provider to send you a monthly report with a few basic statistics around power consumption, feeds and speeds. You should have access to real-time monitoring and reporting and, in the future, who knows how far intelligent automation will go in replacing humans when it comes to configuring, running and maintain an optimised data centre environment?
Finally, finally, long before you sign up to a colocation provider contract, if you’ve carried out due diligence, you’ll have a pretty good idea if the provider you choose is a like-minded organisation or not and, hopefully, ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’.