When endusers think of the cloud it is easy to overlook the very physical backend that stores and delivers the zettabytes of applications, files, photos, and other online data evaporating to the cloud each year, yet data centers serve as the critical atmosphere keeping the cloud afloat. The cloud is simply a collection of servers and network equipment designed to work together efficiently that endusers do not see. That equipment needs to sit somewhere and it sits in data centers. In fact, Cisco’s Global Cloud Index predicts, “… 83% of all data center traffic will come from the cloud …” by 2019, reinforcing the intrinsic role data centers play in breathing life into the cloud.
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Because data centers are the foundation on top of which the cloud is built, endusers need to become more engaged in understanding how data center decisions impact the success or failure of their cloud strategies. For enterprises that are ready to move all internal IT applications to a single cloud service provider, it is important to vet the underlying data center infrastructure of competing cloud providers to ensure the service will provide appropriate uptime service level agreements (SLAs). As such, it’s critical to choose a cloud provider that’s in it for the long haul, and supported by confidence in that provider’s data center infrastructure that protects endusers from the less sunny aspects of cloud — security risk, hidden costs, latency, and inflexibility, to name a few.
More often, however, enterprises are adopting a hybrid model where some applications leverage one or multiple cloud service providers, while others are managed internally by IT departments. In these scenarios, the implications of data center selections extend to the enduser themselves and become more important, extending beyond uptime criteria. Enterprises using a hybrid approach first need to decide whether to build their own data center or colocate with a data center provider. What too many enterprises are missing is that the cloud service providers that they want to connect to in the near term and the flexibility they desire to adapt to changing technology in the long term are directly correlated to data center decisions today.
Enterprises that are not taking a longer view of positioning their IT infrastructure to leverage cloud service providers with adaptability in mind are going to constrain their options and potentially miss out on some key benefits of cloud computing and storage.
Colocation is a service where companies deploy and operate servers in a professionally managed and monitored third-party data center facility that provides secure, limited-entry space; relentless power capacity that scales to meet business needs; and consistent cooling capabilities. In very simple terms, the concept is basically outsourcing the physical management of your server room into a shared environment that leverages the expertise and shared infrastructure of the colocation provider.
As in-house enterprise data centers reach end of life, IT departments are increasingly turning to colocation to avoid build costs of new internal data centers that can run around $1,000 to $1,500/sq ft. The costs associated with power and cooling requirements of new servers, connectivity requirements to suppliers, and the heightened importance of redundancies to eliminate downtime in an “always on” environment are indeed daunting.
Good third-party data centers are designed to ensure 100% availability and will back that up with performance guarantees. Enterprises have identified the costs of downtime as a major cost driver and have looked to outsourced experts to mitigate that risk. Beyond economics, enterprises are realizing infrastructure management is not a core competency, and turning to colocation data center specialists in order to re-focus on what truly drives value for their business.
The trend of enterprise adoption of outsourced data centers is intersecting with the trend of cloud providers leveraging colocation data centers to create a convergence point for infrastructure. Cloud providers are augmenting their own data centers or outsourcing altogether to enable rapid scalability of server, network, and power capacity on an as-needed basis to support their core value proposition. Cloud and content providers are also able to reach “edge markets” more efficiently through strategically located data centers to cache content closer to the enduser, so when a video or file is called up for online viewing, it resides close to the enduser to minimize latency and jitter instead of bouncing across the country before reaching the enduser. Perhaps most importantly, cloud providers are going toward the demand, increasingly deploying nodes in colocation facilities to access new customers via direct connections to a wide-range of enterprise, financial, content, and other potential customers.
It is at the intersection of these two trends that creates further opportunities for savvy enterprises developing their cloud strategies. Finding a data center that meets requirements to support internal IT applications and direct access to a large number of cloud providers can provide the immediate security and long-term flexibility that IT managers crave. Opting for colocation can provide a soft entry into cloud adoption that building an internal data center cannot provide, with a menu of network and cloud services that can be selected to meet specific needs instead of having to rely on a one-size-fits-all approach for all applications. This creates a safety net for cloud selections, as enterprises gain alternative or backup options as the need surfaces.
When considering colocation options, network and cloud neutrality should be a priority item, meaning enterprises aren’t limited to a small set of solutions and aren’t corralled into the data center providers’ managed services, cloud, and other non-neutral options. This is a huge advantage for forward-looking enterprises, considering a network and cloud neutral facility will approach its ecosystem in an agnostic manner to leave the ultimate choice up to you. Not all data centers are alike when it comes to the choice they provide for network and cloud services and smart enterprises are asking these questions as a decision criteria for their data center selection.
Finding the hyper connected data center is not always easy because they are built up over decades and hard to replicate. An interconnection hub is a physical location where fiber networks intersect and networks exchange traffic — these are key locations where internet and cloud traffic traverse. There is typically only one or two major interconnect locations in a given region; for example, the 511 Building in Minneapolis is the most connected data center in Minnesota and is renowned for being the focal point of interconnection in the Upper Midwest. That means enterprises can reach more than 70 networks by colocating servers with a data center provider within the 511 Building. The insiders map to cloud hunting is that network density is a leading indicator of a concentration of cloud providers, with dozens of cloud options typically centralized in one data center because that location optimizes costs and latency.
The strategic value of choice is the fact that robust competition among networks and cloud providers going after enterprise business ultimately drives down the costs of those services, and drives up quality as vendors seek differentiation. Colocation provides “un-bundling” benefits because one provider offering a tool set of solutions might not have the best of all worlds. Finding a blend of unique providers can create an amalgamation that ultimately provides a best-in-class solution for your unique, real-world need versus a standard, mainstream bundle package. Another advantage of the choice colocation affords is reduced switching costs. It’s easier to disconnect and connect to a new cloud or network provider within a colocation environment because of the direct, wide-ranging access the data center affords.
An important development in the cloud space is how public cloud providers are on-ramping customers. Increasingly, the large public clouds — Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, SoftLayer and Google for example — are creating protected connections that allow cloud users to bypass the risks of the public internet. Enterprises wanting to use these public clouds as part of their application fabric should first look for data centers in their markets that have nodes from these cloud providers for on-ramping traffic. Alternatively, enterprises can find a range of networks who have partnered with the cloud providers to provide secure cross market connectivity. By setting up network connectivity with a Zayo, Level 3, or other network that is listed as a public cloud network partner, enterprises can gain secure, direct, dedicated access to cloud services, ideally within the protected space of a colocation data center.
Enterprises can also connect directly to the more specific and niche cloud providers within a colocation facility, and even work with vendors to customize solutions catered to individual business needs. For example, a first step for many enterprises pursuing the cloud is beginning with a cost-effective public cloud solution for storage and applications that power less sensitive data or experience peak usage periods. By starting with less risk-adverse applications that can drain overall performance during peak periods, you can build confidence in the cloud while gaining the core advantages cloud provides.
Planning for the future is hard when trying to prepare for a moving target. Technology is changing rapidly throughout the infrastructure and software stacks. The provider landscape continues to expand and contract, as new companies emerge to address unique niches and larger players acquire the innovators. In 2015, IBM alone has embarked on 10 acquisitions falling mostly in the cloud industry. Enterprises that recognize the relationship of cloud strategy and internal data center decisions have to think about three- to 10-year decisions on where to put infrastructure when visibility two years out is foggy. In the end, the antidote to technology and vendor uncertainty is choice. Colocation facilities provide more choice for networks and clouds than in-house data centers, and colocation providers that sit near interconnection hubs provide more choice than those that do not.
In summary, when defining your cloud strategy, follow this decision tree to ensure you don’t get stuck at a dead end in the future:
Start by deciding whether you are comfortable pushing all applications to a single cloud provider or prefer to optimize with a hybrid approach.
From that point, focus on the build versus buy decision for your internal data center, keeping in mind the cloud service providers you want to leverage immediately and the flexibility you want in the future.
Survey the data center providers where you are to identify who can provide access to the greatest number of network and cloud service providers within the facility.
Look for data center providers that are offering secure connections to public clouds to enable a full menu of service providers without relying on the public internet.
Consider the costs of moving IT equipment should your list of cloud partners change based on technology or consolidation.
Don’t get swept up in the cloud hype and lose control of your IT infrastructure — build a solid IT groundwork from day one, and layer the cloud-based applications that make the best fit for driving your business on top for a solid foundation that survives for years to come.