Getting a good deal from a data centre can be a difficult business. There are questions you can ask in making the choice, but there's not much consistency in the way that providers present services and structure their prices.
Steve Hone, Operations Director of the Data Centre Alliance (DCA), says there has been plenty of confusion among end users, especially small to midsized businesses, about what they can expect. This is one of the main factors behind the DCA's recently launched certification programme.
Part of the problem, Hone says, is that providers often don't make an effort to understand what the customer really needs.
"Data centres are very good at talking about what they do, but not so much at talking about the customer's business needs," he says. "They don't often ask questions such as what are their drivers, what's their long term vision, whether it is a tactical or strategic decision to use a data centre, and what are they trying to achieve short and long term?"
A lack of clarity in pricing can also present a problem. Hone says he knows of cases in which customers have obtained several quotes but they have all been presented differently, and that it can be very difficult to find a like-for-like.
In addition, while a customer can ask questions about operational best practice, few SMBs will have the knowledge to know exactly what to ask. Victor Smith, Acting Chair of the Data Centre Specialist Group at the Chartered Institute for IT, says there are a lot of things that can go wrong.
"Generally, if you don't have a good operational data centre then anything can happen," he says.
"For example, you need generator testing to ensure if power goes off it is replaced with UPS generator power. Good data centres will run off the generators for at least an hour a month.
"That's operational best practice but some data centres may have never done it. You have to make sure the centre you put your livelihood in has that in place, so the cheapest one may not always be the best option."
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A reasonably savvy SMB customer will ask if the centre has proof of its capability, but Hone says there's a lot of smoke and mirrors around certification. For example, most data centres effectively certify themselves on which of the tiers between 1 and 4 they match (the tiers are determined by the technology in place and expected availability of the service, beginning at 99.671% for tier 1).
"That means you've got to know exactly what you're looking at, which most SMBs don't, or trust the provider that what they're saying is truthful," Hone says.
The Uptime Institute, sometimes called the Global Data Centre Authority, has a certification programme but he says that only 24 centres in all of Europe have gone through it, and that there are more than 180 in the UK alone.
The DCA has seen this as a problem and earlier this year launched its Data Centre Certification programme, with aim of guaranteeing the quality and resilience of services. It's been developed by DCA members and based on existing guidelines and standards, focused on the four factors that the more knowledgeable customers use in their decisions: resilience, energy-efficiency, physical security and operational best practice.
"If we could get the whole of the industry to start using a standard auditing process to check their facilities against the same metric, it would help the providers to compete equally against each other, and provide clarity for the customer," Hone says.
The first handful of data centres are currently going through the auditing process, which they will have to repeat every two years to retain the certificates, and Hone says that several other companies have expressed an interest.
Whether the scheme takes off will depend on how many providers see it as a competitive asset. As Hone says, self-certification works in favour of those who prefer to keep customers in the dark, and it will take time for awareness of the scheme to spread beyond the data centre industry.