Brian Burch knew the moment had arrived. Two of his data centre's key services, availability and business continuity, needed fast and dramatic improvement. Design and location limitations meant that his company's existing data centre couldn't be upgraded to the levels necessary to provide the required function and performance gains.

So Burch, senior worldwide infrastructure director of Kemet, a capacitor manufacturer, decided last year that it was time for his data centre to split.

Even in today's challenging economy, enterprises are facing rising internal and external demands for IT services. When an existing facility can no longer shoulder an enterprise's IT burden alone or when it becomes necessary to establish a secondary site to provide enhanced business continuity or regional network support, an important decision point has been reached.

For a number of enterprises, the obvious solution is to add another data centre, and for many of those it means partnering with a colocation facility. If you're considering this option, it doesn't just pay to do your homework, experts say. It's essential.

"You absolutely need to do the buy-vs-build analysis," says Jeff Paschke, senior analyst at Tier1 Research. That said, "I am a former enterprise data centre manager, and from what I know now, more should be using [colo] than they do," he added.

The number one reason to consider colocation comes down to financials. "Do you want to go to your board and ask for $50 million in capex [capital expenditures] for another data center?" Paschke asks. "The alternative is to go to a provider and use opex [operating expenses] and not have to spend money upfront," he says.

Given the massive costs and time demands required to build a traditional data centre, "fewer organisations are deciding to build their own satellite data centres," says Lynda Stadtmueller, an analyst at technology research company Frost & Sullivan.

Especially for enterprises that have latency sensitive applications that require local presence, there is a trend toward leasing space from a colo or hosting provider rather than building and managing their own data centres, she explains.

A Frost & Sullivan study conducted a year ago showed that total space used by enterprises will increase by almost 15% annually through 2013. Yet the percentage of that space that the enterprises own themselves, versus leasing from another provider, will decrease, from 70% to 64%, during that time. "A pretty hefty swing," Stadtmueller says.

Technology research firm Info-Tech Research Group backs that up. Some 64% of organisations engage in some form of colocation services, including hosting, but over 77% of them do not outsource the entire data centre, according to a survey of 78 customers conducted in late 2010.

Outer limits

Most organisations begin thinking about adding a data centre as soon as their existing facility starts maxing out its physical space and/or support resources, Stadtmueller says. "Once you see you're beginning to run out of space, run out of server capacity [or] when you're looking to add or upgrade an application, that's when you begin to look outside."

Sometimes the push comes in the form of a business need. A new direction may require a lot of extra capacity ASAP, or enough that it would push your existing data centre over the edge of its existing power usage, for instance. Power is usually the gating factor in many older data centres these days, meaning that enterprises run out of power options long before they run out of space.

For a number of organisations, the idea of building out a second site often arises from a desire to create, enhance or save costs on an enterprise business continuity strategy. "With our new site, we really wanted to improve on the response time from any kind of a failure," Burch says. Kemet was also looking for a way to escape a costly relationship with a disaster recovery (DR) services provider, he adds.

Analysis showed that the new facility would trim recovery time from 72 hours or more to a range of five minutes to 18 hours, depending on the system category. The annualised cost of the new facility would be about the same as continuing the current DR contract.

Given all that evidence, Burch decided to go with colo. And in addition to the DR features, now the company has "a modern test and development environment with a three year refresh cycle," Burch says. "Basically, we got a new data centre with new equipment and communications lines with zero change in budget."

"One month after go-live on the new data centre we conducted a test recovery of the systems previously covered under our DR contract," Burch explains. "We recovered all of the target systems in less than 10 hours." He notes that the dramatic improvement over the previous recovery target of 72 hours or more included "normal delays from recovering on new equipment in a new location and using new procedures."

To maximise the business continuity value, Burch and his team decided to place a significant amount of distance between the new facility and Kemet's headquarters. "We felt like we had to go at least 100 miles away to avoid the types of disasters that lead to electrical substation problems, large storms, those sorts of things," Burch says. The team ultimately fudged a little bit on its distance mandate and settled on a location some 90 miles away.

Beyond business continuity, Burch says the new data center was designed to fulfill another key goal: to provide a test and development centre that would operate independently of the main facility. "Probably 95% of the hardware that's down there is being used for test and development instances of our applications," Burch says. "In the event of a disaster, it will just automatically convert from that role into running our production systems."

Licking latency

Another motivation for creating a new data centre is to boost application responsiveness for regional employees, customers and other end users. Organisations running latency sensitive network applications, the kind commonly used to power shopping and travel websites, financial services, videoconferencing and content distribution, usually like to place their applications as near to end users as possible to improve response times. By splitting a data centre into two or more sites, an organisation can efficiently serve users distributed across a wide region or even over multiple continents.

LexisNexis, known for its legal research and workflow services, decided in 2009 to establish a colo data centre in Arizona, to serve customers more efficiently from a location that's relatively immune from storms, earthquakes and other natural calamities. "We wanted something that was in the western region of the US," says Terry Williams, the company's vice president of managed technology services. "Location was a huge part of our decision."

Not surprisingly, network availability and performance were essential considerations for LexisNexis as it went about choosing its new site. "The key thing for us is network connectivity," Williams says. "That was something that just couldn't be compromised on."

LexisNexis is hardly the only organisation seeking to bring data closer to end users for better service, says Darin Stahl, an analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. "There's a definite move toward decentralisation and that's helping enterprises that want to open additional data centres for one reason or another," he says.

Williams says that turning to a colocation provider, i/o Data Centers in his case, didn't require his firm to compromise on any facility services or amenities. "We expected all of the normal things that a high-tier data centre would have in terms of backup power, generators and all of those things, as well as network connectivity," he says.

For his part, Burch feels that using a colocation provider allowed a faster, less costly deployment without sacrificing convenience or functionality. "We were able to get everything set up within a two month period, and that included the building out of office space, even converting some office space into raised-floor data centre space, which is pretty amazing."

Yet, finding a suitable colocation provider can be just as challenging as scouting a site for a traditional data centre. "We looked at taking a building and converting it ourselves," Williams says. After deciding that overhauling a standalone building wouldn't be cost effective, LexisNexis started looking for a colocation provider. "I would say that we probably spent six months searching for a site, and we probably looked at no less than 30 different locations and providers, it was a very extensive search," Williams says.

Space can be at a premium

Colo space can be tight in some geographies, so expect to pay a premium in those areas. Tier1's Paschke explains that the economic slowdown and resulting credit crunch put the kibosh on a lot of data centre capacity build-outs. That slowed down some of the colo vendors, of course, but it also meant that enterprises put their own expansion plans on hold. So nowadays, if customers choose to turn to colo vendors, they may find that there isn't quite as much space as they need.

This situation is, of course, very dependent on the geographic area involved. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for instance, talked about an oversupply in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. In general, though, many analysts point to an undersupply of colo space in key locations.

One reason this is important is because some shops opt to have their second data centre near their main facility so they can stay close to their gear. Paschke calls these "server huggers", people who want to reach out and touch their servers, even though the goal in most data centres is to automate much, if not all, of the systems management. If your main facility is in a high demand area, it might be difficult to find a nearby colo facility.

More factors to think about when going colo include deciding upfront what you're willing to pay for. Some customers need mega-bandwidth for instant response times and require stringent service level agreements, and some choose to have telecom links to several providers for backup purposes, in case one telecom vendor goes black. Others aren't so concerned.

"Some people don't care; milliseconds don't mean that much to them," says Jonathan Hjembo, senior analyst at TeleGeography Research. "Customers just need a ridiculous amount of different things," and it's that diversity that's pushing the market forward, he adds.

Other considerations include security, both physical and virtual, as well as backup infrastructure, including power, cooling, fire suppression and the like. Customers also need to discuss their future needs with their would-be colo partners, to make sure the vendors will have enough space for the customer's anticipated needs for the next few years. And be sure to do a financial analysis.

Staffing and related issues

Mention "colocation" and a lot of IT staffers will hear "outsourcing" and will naturally fear losing their jobs or influence, analysts say. "People are resistant to change," Tier1's Paschke says.

Figure on your staff needing some time to become comfortable with this notion. Info-Tech's Stahl talks about an evolution from using colo for a backup data centre to perhaps handling more critical, first-tier kinds of hardware, storage and applications. "Once that happens, customers start to wonder whether it's the best use of a server admin to go to the colo facility and mess around in the cage for a day." At that point, the company may be ready to consider managed services for some of their IT functions.

LexisNexis' Williams notes that one secondary requirement that tends to be overlooked until the very last moment is finding qualified people to staff the facility. Sometimes enterprises opt to use the colo vendor's on-site experts, but other times they simply lease space within the facility and staff it themselves.

"Obviously, you're going to do local hiring," Williams says. But he notes that a remote data centre has different staffing needs than a primary site. Since secondary centres generally don't have as many management and administrative jobs as main sites, hiring needs tend to focus on technical individuals who can easily move between multiple tasks. "You want a small staff that can actually do a number of different things," he advises.

Still, Williams notes that LexisNexis had no shortage of staff members volunteering to transfer to the new location. "If it's in a nice location like Scottsdale, everybody is raising their hand to move out there and provide support," he says.

For most enterprises, adding a colocated data centre is usually a significantly easier task than creating a primary site from scratch. In most cases, established platforms and practices can be replicated fairly painlessly at the new location. Kemet used its main facility as a staging area for the new site.

"To ease the transition, we actually built all the new equipment in our primary data centre," Burch says. "We synchronised all the data that was going to be replicated at the new site and conducted some tests to make sure everything was going to work the way it was supposed to." The equipment was then transported to the new site. "We then simply turned it on and just let it catch up on what it had missed in the eight hours it had been in transit," Burch says.

To complete the job, the Kemet team conducted a series of tests to make sure that the new business continuity system would work flawlessly. "Once we had confirmed that, we basically declared it in production and then, a month later, we let our traditional [disaster] recovery contract expire," Burch says.

Other pointers

Careful planning and close attention to details are vital to a successful deployment, Burch says. "Most of all, look carefully at any contracts that might be involved with the new data centre, particularly any disaster recovery or hosting contracts that could be either a positive or a negative in your planning," he advises.

Burch also urges organisations not to neglect their main data centre when planning their new facility, particularly if they intend to use the new site in any sort of backup role. "We did our new facility in conjunction with upgrading all of the equipment in our current data centre," he says.

Kemet also placed all-new equipment in its remote site. "That's provided us with a good bit more flexibility as well as horsepower for our test and development environment," Burch says. "The developers are very pleased with that."

LexisNexis' Williams feels that finding a competent and trustworthy colocation partner is essential to the success of a secondary facility, since the provider will be responsible for delivering essential infrastructure services, including power and cooling. "The key thing is to find a partner that can provide what I would consider to be that intimate level of service, meaning that you feel that you're the only client there."