Got a new data centre? Yawn. Show me your SLAs and I’ll be more impressed

The question came into focus for CBR this week with the announcement by Peer 1 that it is ploughing lots of good money to turn a Brownfield site near Havant into a new ‘state of the art,’ ‘flagship,’ ‘world-class’ UK data centre.

The new facility – which won’t actually be open for business until July, by the way – is a 50,000 square feet beast that the company’s European MD Dominic Monkhouse told us represents an initial £12m outlay, possibly rising as high as £30m by the time all the space has been re-modeled (it’s being built in the currently trendy data centre fashion of in modules, or pods).

As is common with all such things, the superlatives and factoids come thick and fast. The facility will have capacity for approximately 1,020 normal cabinet equivalents (NCE) for co-location or 20,000 servers for managed and dedicated hosting, with the flexibility to alter the mix of these core services based on future customer demand.

It offers ambient (‘air cooled’) cooling, which means the same Portsmouth air that wafts down the High Street of the south coast city will be used to curb the heat trends of all the kit in there in a ‘green’ way.

The company is proud of a potential (remember, it’s not been built yet) metric of heat efficiency called the PUE – power usage effectiveness, a way to measure a data centre’s energy efficiency, determined by dividing the amount of power entering a data centre by the power used to run, where the nearer to 1 you can get the better – of 1.35, and so forth.

The company is also pointing out that the site is based on the same design as its Toronto site, which has some impressive performance and capacity benchmarks, is a sign of commitment to the UK market as it’s only been here 18 months or so, is also another sort of first for the company as it will offer scalable managed hosting, dedicated hosting and co-location services within the Portsmouth facility, the first time all three types of hosting will be offered by the company from a UK-based facility. And so on.

But… it’s still a big shed that’s not in London you outsource your infrastructure to. Surely a pizza box in Havant doesn’t really experience any different quality of life, or perform any better, than its brothers and sisters in any other data hotel? And as we were careful to ask if Peer 1 is positioning this like the latest site x or y as ‘Europe’s greenest’ – it isn’t, we kind of come to the problem of what is the buy-reason for using this site as opposed to any other.

A sparky character who’s an expert in his field, Monkhouse started by telling us that demand for European data centre space is expected to double by 2015 so there is a need for an increase in technology to meet this demand, that his is one of the few hosting companies in the UK who own our data centre and so forth, his outfit has its own network linking all of its data centres together and so on.

We remained unconvinced until we got down to good old capitalist reasons. "We are the fourth largest supplier in this market after firms like UKFast, but we are all of us well behind Rackspace, which is a £100m supplier," he said.

In other words, quite rightly, Peer 1 wants to carve out some market share and differentiate itself quickly – but not on technology grounds but service and customer experience grounds.

"Flexibility" is the word it wants used most about this service and the Hants centre, not green or PUE, it turns out. And as we saw when we interviewed his boss last year, that in fact is the Peer 1 USP (as it sees it); service.

Which is a long winded way, perhaps, of us finding out that a co-lo can’t market itself on how many square feet its data centre is or how good the fans in it are. That’s technology testosterone that is nice for data centre geeks (and there are many of us). But it’s irrelevant to the sort of midrange CIOs Monkhouse wants to tempt away from Rackspace, whose business he wants to get based on the fact that as a supplier he can offer them more for less and in a cuddlier way.

As it should be. The key to co-lo and cloud will have to be why you want to work for this particular company, not the other guy, and that will have to be on things like brand, corporate culture, customer service and support and all that.

So good luck with your data centre speed and feeds and PUE and enjoy the walk round the big shed and dig the non-blazingly hot tiles, why not? But ask about the payment terms and how easy it would be to pull out – not how cool the ambient air is at night.

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