Questions Data Center Operators Don’t Want You to Ask

We live in a world of clouds, SaaS, outsourcing, and Everything over IP (EoIP). The challenges IT professionals face when trying to sort through the maze of technology, globalization, SOX, HIPPA, PUE, and on,… result in daunting confusion. Mix in a few Your Future Data centeroverzealous sales people, an inquiring CFO, incorrigible users within the organization, and you have all the pre-requisites for a world class, globalized, migraine headache.

Now let’s go out and consider throwing all this confusion into an outsourced data center. You know your company wants to save money, have better quality facilities, be close to network and Internet exchange points, be close to carriers who can support your national distributed office. So you do what anybody might consider doing – you call on a data center sales person.

Each company has a pitch. That pitch is refined based on what resources the company has to sell, and the thought leadership provided by the data center operator will most certainly promote their “unique” product or service. As the overzealous sales person goes into their pitch, several topics will no doubt emerge:

  • Their power stability
  • Mechanical and Electrical Systems (including maintenance)
  • Their remote hands, smart hands, on-site tech support, and “nutty” devotion to service
  • Completion of SAS70 audits
  • Facility structure
  • Security
  • And so on…

This article will walk through a few topics that are normally not well explained by data center operators, avoided, or simply misrepresented.

The Data Center Compromise, Mixed-Use Buildings

Any data center presents the potential tenant with a series of compromises. Very few commercial data centers are custom-built from the ground up, and most data centers are either built into mixed-use properties (those properties originally built as office space), and conversions (those properties built for another reason, such as a retail outlet <we built a large data center in a former WalMart property in Seoul a few years ago>, a warehouse <such as the original Equinix/Pihana site in Tokyo>, or factory <such as the original Level 3 gateway in Brussels>).

Data center operators choose mixed-use building primarily when they are in an attractive location, such as near a carrier hotel, major fiber optic terminal, or in a strategic central business district location. Mixed-use buildings are normally built for limited floor loading (how much weight you can actually place on a slab of concrete, where you can place the weight (such as over a structure beam), and with lower floor to ceiling separation (in the US, this is normally around 12.5 ft).

In addition, mixed-use buildings may have one or more of the following shortfalls:

  • Limited access to utility power
  • Limited “riser” space within the building (for telecom, power, and cooling infrastructure needing to transit the building from basement/ground level or from the rooftop)
  • Antiquated power distribution within the building (such as old buss ducts, switch gear, panels, etc)
  • Limited cooling capacity
  • Limited ability to either power or cool tenants with higher “watts/sqft” requirements (server farms)

Mixed-use buildings are best used by tenants with the following profile:

  • Telecom, routing, and switching carriers/networks
  • Members/participants in a carrier hotel meet-me-room
  • Tenants with limited requirement to support large server installations

While the mixed-use building may have the most technical limitations, they also tend to be the most expensive space. This is primarily due to the lower cost of telecom carrier and network interconnections, limited need for interconnection backhaul (if the property has an open meet-me-room or distribution frame), and in most cases simply legacy network effect. The Newby-ism “if you are a network, and not present in a carrier hotel, then you are paying somebody to be present in a carrier hotel” is still valid (Hunter Newby, CEO, Allied Fiber).

For those who are considering outsourcing into a mixed-use building, make sure you understand your requirement for long term growth, the power, cooling, structural, and telecom restrictions, and safety record of the building. MOST major electrical failures and events which have occurred in the data center industry over the past ten years have been in mixed-use buildings. Find out if your building has had failures, and if so, a very detailed accounting of how the data center owner has corrected the infrastructure problems which caused the problem.

Do not accept explanations that it (the failure) was human error. While probable many electrical failures in mixed-use buildings are caused by sloppy maintenance, the age of infrastructure should be considered more of a concern. To understand the infrastructure in a building, ask the data center operator to produce a recent, stamped (by certified electrical engineer), single line diagram showing not only the infrastructure, but also age of infrastructure. Only those with something to hide will refuse the request. Stay away from them…

Bring a qualified consultant with you to the sales meeting, and understand the burden is on the data center operator to answer your questions.

Conversion Buildings

In many cases the conversion building will meet all requirements for building out a high quality data center. If the conversion building is considered a shell, meeting all structural requirements such as near unlimited floor loading, high floor to ceiling clearance, very large floor plates (greater than 40,000sqft per plate), adequate for high capacity cooling systems (prefer chilled water), generator backup, fuel storage, and good proximity to multiple facility-based telecom carriers, then you can do a lot of good things with a conversation.

Things to keep in mind with conversions:

  • They are often built outside of the city center, limiting high concentrations of facility-based fiber and carrier diversity
  • They are often located in areas sensitive to natural disasters such as flooding
  • They are often located in industrial areas, presenting both physical security challenges to the property (vandalism), as well as physical danger to people who need 24×7 access to their equipment (assault)

With the conversion, just as with the mixed-use building, you will need to ensure you fully understand the electrical and mechanical source and distribution. You need to know the age of equipment, that existing single line diagrams are accurate and certified, as well as ensure the facility has infrastructure laid out for future growth – and the local utilities can support growth (will the power utility provide more power? Will the city allow additional generators and fuel storage?).

The conversion is often a very good choice for server farms, and large deployments. The cost of space is normally cheaper, power may be cheaper, and floor loading is normally not an issue. Many satellite data center cluster are popping up in locations such as El Segundo near Los Angeles, offering very high quality data center space developed from conversions.

Site Commissioning, SAS 70, and CMMS

We covered this pretty well in a previous article, and will not go into complete detail here. However the main theme cannot be avoided:

No company should consider collocation within a facility that cannot produce complete documentation that integration testing and commissioning was completed prior to facility operations – and that testing should be at NETA Level 5. In some cases, documentation of “retro” testing is acceptable, however potential tenants in a facility should be aware that is still a compromise, as it is almost impossible to complete a retro-commissioning test in a live facility.

Disaster ResponseThis is most critical in a mixed-use use building, where there have been numerous electrical failures due to lack of any commissioning, limited commissioning, or major infrastructure upgrades without any significant level of integration testing. The candidate data center should provide all historical information on the electric al system, as well as commissioning documentation – on demand, for the prospective tenant. Reticence or reluctance to provide the documentation probably indicates a major problem.

Understanding SAS70 Audits

One thing to keep in mind about SAS70 audits… The audit only reviews items the data center operator chooses to audit. Thus, a company may have a very nice and polished SAS70 audit documentation, however the contents may not include every item you need to ensure the data center operator has a comprehensive operations plan. You may consider finding an experienced consultant to review the SAS70 document, and provide any additional guidance on whether or not the audit actually includes all facility maintenance and management items needed to ensure continuing protection from mechanical, monitoring/management, electrical, security, or human staffing failures.

Comprehensive SAS70 audits will go into a fair level of detail. If your candidate data center offers a SAS70 audit of 5~10 pages, then you might find it lacking the level of detail needed to give you confidence your mission-critical equipment and applications are being facility-managed in data center that really “walks the talk.”

The SAS70 audit should include all the following sections:


  • Security Company profile
  • Key inventories
  • Access management
  • Badges
  • Biometrics
  • Staff selection criteria
  • Materials control
  • Confirmation each security guard has completed a background check
  • Security equipment is routinely inspected/tested
  • Security “rounds” are recorded and confirmed
  • Security camera images and access logs are kept for a minimum 60 days, longer is preferred

Maintenance/CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management System)

  • Comprehensive preventive maintenance/testing schedule for ALL mechanical and electrical equipment
  • UPS
  • Emergency generators
  • Rectifiers/DC Plant
  • ATS
  • Switchgear
  • Complete semi-annual (or more frequent) infrared scan
  • Breaker audit for NEC compliance (or automated view via current transformers)
  • Service level agreements
  • Emergency call out for all critical M&E equipment
  • Diesel refueling during emergencies or extended operation

Human Resources

  • Staffing process
  • Background checks
  • Certifications
  • Termination management

NOTE: While all of us have examples and stories of people who became super routing engineers, electrical staff, and field ops professionals, having a high number of network, cabling (BICSI), or electrical certifications does give you a level of confidence that the data center company knowledge and experience level is capable of performing at the desired or marketed service level.


  • Recurring training
  • Recurring staff meetings
  • Business continuity and disaster recovery plans
  • Daily site verifications
  • Escalation process

Again, the more detailed an audit, the greater your confidence the data center is being managed and operated to the level you can confidently bring your business into their environment for outsourcing.

The SAS70 Type 1 audit is a paper audit, and the Type 2 audit actually includes measurement and compliance of each control or observation.

Final Recommendation

The bottom line is each that your business, whether it is in a cabinet, a 1000ft cage, or a private suite, depends on the data center operator for supporting mission-critical applications and function essential to your business. If you do not believe you have the knowledge, or ability to drive a hard factual line of due-diligence in your data center search, find a consultant who can provide that guidance and ensure you are getting exactly what you are paying to receive.

If the data center operator is reluctant to support your requests for audit or compliance, then the chances are that data center operator is either treating your company with a high level of contempt, they have problems which may make a potential tenant reluctant to use that facility, or even worse, they simply do not have the needed documentation.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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