Uptime exec: Data center ratings aid cloud choice

The tier system for ranking data center reliability has become a useful tool for businesses selecting a cloud provider

Julian Kudritzki has more visibility than most into how the Uptime Institute's data center tier system is being used around the world, and according to him it's become a useful tool to help businesses find a reliable hosting provider for their applications.

Kudritzki, a vice president with the Uptime Institute, travels to South America, Europe and other regions explaining the tier system to prospective clients and supporting them while they get certified. This year he's opening an Uptime office in Sao Paulo.

The tier system ranks data centers into four tiers according to their expected levels of uptime and availability, based on how much redundancy is built into the infrastructure. A Tier 3 data center has a high level of uptime, and a Tier 4 is about as bulletproof as they come.

One of the trends Kudritzki has seen is more businesses asking their collocation facility or managed hosting provider to become tier-certified. As businesses start to put more applications in third-party data centers, the tier system can provide them with assurance that they're getting the level of service they pay for, he said.

One week before the Institute's symposium in San Jose, California, Kudritzki talked to IDG News Service about this and other trends. Following is an edited transcript:

IDG News Service: What's the purpose of the tier system, why is it useful?

Julian Kudritzki: The tier system serves to take data centers, which are by definition highly customized, unique facilities, and compare them using a common set of concepts. We look purely at the design and its implementation, we don't look at what kind of building you have or how you staff it. Not that those aren't important but we start by asking, what are the maintenance opportunities and what is its fault response.

IDGNS: Meaning, how often do you have to take systems offline for maintenance?

J.K.: Right, or do you have to take them offline at all. One of the big leaps is between Tier 2 and Tier 3, because when you introduce Tier 3 you introduce maintenance opportunities across all the infrastructure without influencing your IT operations.

Then fault response, which comes with Tier 4, is the ability for the infrastructure in and of itself to rectify a fault, contain it and sustain the IT operations without any adverse impact.

IDGNS: What trends have you seen in the past few years?

J.K.: One of the interesting phenomena is the emergence of higher tiers in the third-party industry (e.g. collocation and hosting providers). For a while, the third-party industry was focussed mainly on lower-tier business cases. Now, as the cost of data centers has become so exorbitant, enterprises are reticent about putting their money into a data center. We see more enterprises that typically ran large, high-availability data centers going to the third parties. So we see more certifications for collocations, hosting environments, managed service providers, whatever term you prefer.

IDGNS: A couple of years ago Mike Manos [a well known industry figure who currently manages AOL's data centers] was critical of the tier system, saying people adhered to it "dogmatically" instead of thinking about what are their real data center needs.

J.K.: We wrote a public response to Mr. Manos. We acknowledge his point. What we heard him say is that tiers are not the be and end all, which we agree with. The system, like any system, can be abused. You don't have to put a 600 horsepower engine in a car to go to the grocery store. We agree that a comprehensive and coordinated planning process is key to a project's success and effectively utilizing the tiers.

At the same time, it's important always to go back to the business case. If your business is not significantly hampered by your data center going down for maintenance on a regular basis, by all means don't spend a bunch of money on a Tier 3. A Tier 4 data center is not the 'best' data center, it's just the right decision for some organizations.

IDGNS: The data center business has seen some big changes in the last decade -- capacity constraints, higher costs, pressures to go green. Has the tier system changed to keep up?

J.K.: It has not changed and I think that's attributable to the foresight of its developers. It was never a check list or a design manual, they knew that what was true in the mid-90s would change radically in three years and even more in 20 years. We stick to the performance concepts. When we evaluate a design for a particular Tier the question is, show us how the maintenance opportunities are satisfied, show us how you do the fault tolerance.

We have a certification going on in Oregon right now with the Kyoto wheel (an efficient cooling technology starting to be used in data centers), and in and of itself there's no reason that couldn't be a Tier 3 facility. As these technologies emerge, even for free cooling environments that have little or no mechanical systems, the response is, show us it can work in these conditions.

IDGNS: Why do organizations want to be certified?

J.K.: There are three main circumstances. The team that's responsible for the data center and has been entrusted with this massive amount of money wants to be able to say, "We reached our project goal and here's someone who had no vested interest affirming that for us."

The second main reason is colo providers who are in a highly competitive environment where everyone is claiming a lot of things. They can say, here's an unbiased third party that says we're capable of high availability. It can also shorten their contract cycles because they don't have to redo the due diligence exercise each time, it's been done in the form of our certification.

The third main reason is folks compelling their third-party providers to get certified. We're seeing more and more of that, and quite a significant uptick in the last 18 to 24 months.

IDGNS: Why do you think that is?

J.K.: As more and more critical computing goes to third parties, there's more and more at risk, and there's more need for an affirmation.

IDGNS: So the tier system becomes more important for businesses as they put more workloads in third-party facilities?

J.K.: Agreed.

IDGNS: What's happening internationally?

J.K.: I just got back from 11 days in Brazil. In these rapidly emerging marketplaces, the data center industry and the IT industry are experiencing the last 20 years of evolution in a matter of months. We were talking to one of the biggest banks in Brazil, they experienced 28 percent growth last year. It puts them in the top 10 banks in the world and they're suddenly thrust onto the world stage. The tiering system is desirable because maybe the in-country experience isn't there, and they need to know a project is going to meet their needs.

IDGNS: How many data enters have you certified there?

J.K.: We've completed five in Brazil, and there are at least that many in the works right now.

IDGNS: So the tiering system is just ramping up in emerging markets?

J.K.: Yes, we see rapidly growing markets in Brazil and Russia. The Middle East is still experiencing a massive amount of data center construction, and then of course Asia, China specifically.

IDGNS: What about India?

J.K.: We have a client there, Datacraft, which is building six data centers right now, all over India. All of them will be certified as Tier 3. That will make them the owner and operator of the single largest portfolio of tier-certifeid data centers in the world.

IDGNS: Who are their customers?

J.K.: Datacraft is a third-party or colo environment. It has a whole variety of customers, it can be cloud based services for private industry, government.

IDGNS: What other trends are you seeing internationally?

J.K.: What could bear improvement is how planned these initiatives are. There's always the issue of speed to market, and you don't want to impede that. But I think what's going to shake out the quick-to-markets versus the long term players is how well they plan, how well they balance IT demand against data center infrastructure capacity.

In Russia the demand far outstrips the supply because of issues around getting public power utility to data centers. So whoever gets to market first is going to be full in a snap of the fingers.

IDGNS: So they're in a hurry and not planning as well as they could?

J.K. And planning in terms of what is actually needed, and frankly if they're building what they say they're building.

IDGNS: There's a big emphasis on "green" data centers in North America. Is that as prevalent in emerging markets?

J.K.: We see that emphasis for the most part in America and Western Europe. In Brazil there was a lot of talk about outside-air cooling even in fairly humid environments. But it seems less of a driver in some of the emerging markets because of that rush to market. They need to get that data center up and running to meet the demand.

IDGNS: And it can take longer to choose a green solution and design the data center around it?

J.K.: Yes, and the operational experience might not be there for some of the emerging technologies.

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James Niccolai

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