The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers–Site Selection Roulette and the Insurance Policies of Mobile infrastructure

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Its always hard to pick exactly where to start in a conversation like this especially since this entire process really represents a changing life-cycle.   Its more of a circular spiral that moves out (or evolves) as new data is introduced than a traditional life-cycle because new data can fundamentally shift the technology or approach.   That being said I thought I would start our conversations at a logical starting point.   Where does one place your infrastructure?  Even in its embryonic “idea phase” the intersection of government and technology begins its delicate dance to a significant degree. These decisions will ultimately have an impact on more than just where the Capital investments a company decides to make are located.  It has affects on the products and services they offer, and as I propose, an impact ultimately on the customers that use the services at those locations.

As I think back to the early days of building out a global infrastructure, the Site Selection phase started at a very interesting place.   In some ways we approached it with a level of sophistication that has still to be matched today and in other ways, we were children playing a game whose rules had not yet been defined.

I remember sitting across numerous tables with government officials talking about making an investment (largely just land purchase decisions) in their local community.  Our Site Selection methodology had brought us to these areas.  A Site Selection process which continued to evolve as we got smarter, and as we started to truly understand the dynamics of the system were being introduced to.   In these meetings we always sat stealthily behind a third party real estate partner.  We never divulged who we were, nor were they allowed to ask us that directly.  We would pepper them with questions, and they in turn would return the favor.  It was all cloak and dagger with the Real Estate entity taking all action items to follow up with both parties.

Invariably during these early days -  these locales would always walk away with the firm belief that we were a bank or financial institution.   When they delved into our financial viability (for things like power loads, commitment to capital build-out etc.) we always stated that any capital commitments and longer term operational cost commitments were not a problem.    In large part the cloak and dagger aspect was to keep land costs down (as we matured, we discovered this was quite literally the last thing we needed to worry about) as we feared that once our name became attached to the deal our costs would go up.   These were the early days of seeding global infrastructure and it was not just us.  I still laugh at the fact that one of our competitors bound a locality up so much in secrecy – that the community referred to the data center as Voldemort – He who shall not be named, in deference to the Harry Potter book series.

This of course was not the only criteria that we used.  We had over 56 by the time I left that particular effort with various levels of importance and weighting.   Some Internet companies today use less, some about the same, and some don’t use any, they ride on the backs of others who have trail-blazed a certain market or locale.   I have long called this effect Data Center Clustering.    The rewards for being first mover are big, less so if you follow them ultimately still positive. 

If you think about most of the criteria used to find a location it almost always focuses on the current conditions, with some acknowledge in some of the criteria of the look forward.  This is true for example when looking at power costs.   Power costs today are important to siting a data center, but so is understanding the generation mix of that power, the corresponding price volatility, and modeling that ahead to predict (as best as possible) longer term power costs.

What many miss is understanding the more subtle political layer that occurs once a data center has been placed or a cluster has developed. Specifically that the political and regulatory landscape can change very quickly (in relationship to the life of a data center facility which is typically measured in 20, 30, or 40 year lifetimes).  It’s a risk that places a large amount of capital assets potentially in play and vulnerable to these kinds of changes.   Its something that is very hard to plan or model against.  That being said there are indicators and clues that one can use to at least play risk factors against or as some are doing – ensuring that the technology they deploy limits their exposure.    In cloud environments the question remains open – how liable are companies using cloud infrastructure in these facilities at risk?   We will explore this a little later.

That’s not to say that this process is all downside either.  As we matured in our approach, we came to realize that the governments (local or otherwise) were strongly incented to work with us on getting us a great deal and in fact competed over this kind of business.   Soon you started to see the offers changing materially.  It was little about the land or location and quickly evolved to what types of tax incentives, power deals, and other mechanisms could be put in play.   You saw (and continue to see) deals structured around sales tax breaks, real estate and real estate tax deals, economic incentives around breaks in power rates, specialized rate structures for Internet and Cloud companies and the like.   The goal here of course was to create the public equivalent of “golden handcuffs” for the Tech companies and try to marry them to particular region, state, or country.  In many cases – all three.  The benefits here are self apparent.  But can they (or more specifically will they) be passed on in some way to small companies who make use of cloud infrastructure in these facilities? While definitely not part of the package deals done today – I could easily see site selection negotiations evolving to incent local adoption of cloud technology in these facilities or provisions being put in place tying adoption and hosting to tax breaks and other deal structures in the mid to longer timeframe for hosting and cloud companies.

There is still a learning curve out there as most governments mistakenly try and tie these investments with jobs creation.   Data Centers, Operations, and the like represents the cost of goods sold (COGS) to the cloud business.  Therefore there is a constant drive towards efficiency and reduction of the highest cost components to deliver those products and services.   Generally speaking, people, are the primary targets in these environments.   Driving automation in these environments is job one for any global infrastructure player.  One of the big drivers for us investing and developing a 100% lights-out data center at AOL was eliminating those kinds of costs.  Those governments that generally highlight job creation targets over other types typically don’t get the site selection.    After having commissioned an economic study done after a few of my previous big data center builds I can tell you that the value to a region or a state does not come from the up front jobs the data center employs.  After a local radio stationed called into question the value of having such a facility in their backyard, we used a internationally recognized university to perform a third party “neutral” assessment of the economic benefits (sans direct people) and the numbers were telling.  We had surrendered all construction costs and other related material to them, and they investigated over the course of a year through regional interviews and the like of what the direct impacts of a data center was on the local community, and the overall impacts by the addition.  The results of that study are owned by a previous employer but I  can tell you with certainty – these facilities can be beneficial to local regions.

No one likes constraints and as such you are beginning to see Technology companies use their primary weapon – technology – to mitigate their risks even in these scenarios.   One cannot argue for example, that while container-based data centers offer some interesting benefits in terms of energy and cost efficiencies, there is a certain mobility to that kind of infrastructure that has never been available before.    Historically, data centers are viewed as large capital anchors to a location.    Once in place, hundreds of millions to billions (depending on the size of the company) of dollars of capital investment are tied to that region for its lifespan.   Its as close to permanent in the Tech Industry as building a factory was during the industrial revolution. 

In some ways Modularization of the data center industry is/can/will have the same effect as the shipping container did in manufacturing.   All puns intended.  If you are unaware of how the shipping container revolutionized the world, I would highly recommend the book “The Box” by Marc Levinson, it’s a quick read and very interesting if you read it through the lens of IT infrastructure and the parallels of modularization in the Data Center Industry at large.

It gives the infrastructure companies more exit options and mobility in the future than they would have had in the past under large capital build-outs.  Its an insurance policy if you will for potential changes is legislation or regulation that might negatively impact the Technology companies over time.  Just another move in the cat and mouse games that we will see evolving here over the next decade or so in terms of the interactions between governments and global infrastructure. 

So what about the consumers of cloud services?  How much of a concern should this represent for them?  You don’t have to be a big infrastructure player to understand that there are potential risks in where your products and services live.  Whether you are building a data center or hosting inside a real estate or co-location provider – these are issues that will affect you.  Even in cases where you only use the cloud provisioning capabilities within your chosen provider – you will typically be given options of what region or area would you like you gear hosted in.  Typically this is done for performance reasons – reaching your customers – but perhaps this information might cause you to think of the larger ramifications to your business.   It might even drive requirements into the infrastructure providers to make this more transparent in the future.

These evolutions in the relationship between governments and Technology and the technology options available to them will continue to shape site selection policy for years to come.   So too will it ultimately affect the those that use this infrastructure whether directly or indirectly remains to be seen.  In the next paper we will explore the this interaction more deeply as it relates to the customers of cloud services and the risks and challenges specifically for them in this environment.

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Cloud Détente – The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers

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Over the last decade or so I have been lucky enough to be placed into a fairly unique position to work internationally deploying global infrastructure for cloud environments.  This work has spanned across some very large companies with a very dedicated focus on building out global infrastructure and managing through those unique challenges.   Strategies may have varied but the challenges faced by them all had some very common themes.   One of the more complex interactions when going through this process is what I call the rolling Cat and Mouse interactions between governments at all levels and these global companies.  

Having been a primary player in these negotiations and the development of measures and counter measures as a result of these interactions, I have come to believe there are some interesting potential outcomes that cloud adopters should think about and understand.   The coming struggle and complexity for managing regulating and policing multi-national infrastructure will not solely impact the large global players, but in a very real way begin to shape how their users will need to think through these socio-political  and geo-political realities. The potential impacts on their business, their adoption of cloud technologies, their resulting responsibilities and measure just how aggressively they look to the cloud for the growth of their businesses.

These observations and predictions are based upon my personal experiences.  So for whatever its worth (good or bad)  this is not the perspective of an academic writing from some ivory tower, rather they are  the observations of someone who has been there and done it.  I probably have enough material to write an entire book on my personal experiences and observations, but I have committed myself to writing a series of articles highlighting what I consider the big things that are being missed in the modern conversation of cloud adoption.  

The articles will highlight (with some personal experiences mixed in) the ongoing battle between Technocrats versus Bureaucrats.  I will try to cover a different angle on many of the big topics out there today such as :

  • Big Data versus Big Government
  • Rise of Nationalism as a factor in Technology and infrastructure distribution
  • The long struggle ahead for managing, regulating, and policing clouds
  • The Business, end-users, regulation and the cloud
  • Where does the data live? How long does it live? Why Does it Matter?
  • Logic versus Reality – The real difference between Governments and Technology companies.
  • The Responsibilities of data ownership
    • … regarding taxation exposure
    • … regarding PII impacts
    • … Safe Harbor

My hope is that this series and the topics I raise, while maybe a bit raw and direct, will cause you to think a bit more about the coming impacts on Technology industry at large, the potential coming impacts to small and medium size businesses looking to adopt these technologies, and the developing friction and complexity at the intersection of technology and government.

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Site Selection,Data Center Clustering and their Interaction

I have written many times on the importance of the site selection for data centers and its growing importance when one considers the regulatory and legislative efforts underway globally.   Those who make their living in this space know that this is going to have a significant impact on the future landscape of these electronic bit factories.   The on-going long term operational costs over the life of the facility,  their use of natural resources (such as power) and what they house and protect (PII data or Personally Identifiable Information) are even now significantly impacting this process for many large global firms, and is making its way into the real estate community.  This is requiring a series of crash courses in information security, power regulation and rate structures, and other complex issues for many in the Real Estate community. 

In speaking to a bunch of friends in the Real Estate side of the business, I thought it might be interesting to take a few of these standard criteria head on in an open discussion.   For this post I think I will take on two of the elemental ones in data center site selection. We will look at one major item, and one item that is currently considered a minor factor that is quickly on the rise in terms of its overall importance.  Namely Power and Water, respectively.

Watts the Big Deal?

Many think that power cost alone is the primary driver for data centers, and while it is always a factor there are many other facets that come into play underneath that broader category of Power.   While Site Selection Factors are always considered highly confidential I thought it might highlight some of the wider arcs in this category.

One such category getting quite a bit of attention is Power  Generation Mix.   The Generation mix is important because it is essentially the energy sources responsible how that area or region gets its energy.  Despite what politicians would lead you to believe, once an electron is on the grid it is impossible to tell from which source it came.   So ‘Green Energy’ and its multitude of definitions is primarily determined by the mix of energy sources for a given region.   A windmill for example does not generate an electron with a tiny label saying that is sourced from ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ sources.   Understanding the generation mix of your power will allow you to forecast and predict potential Carbon output as a result of Data Center Carbon production.   The Environmental Protection Agency in the US, produces a metric called the Carbon Emission Factor which can be applied to your consumption to assist you in calculating your carbon output and is based upon the generation mix of the areas you are looking to site select in.   Whether you are leasing or building your own facility you will likely find yourself falling into a mandatory compliance in terms of reporting for this kind of thing.

So you might be thinking, ‘Great, I just need to find the areas that have cheap power and a good Carbon Emission Factor right?’  The answer is no.  Many Site Selection processes that I see emerging in the generic space start and stop right at this line.   I would however advocate that one takes the next logical step which is to look at the relationship of these factors together and over a long period of time.

Generation Mix has long been considered to be a ‘Forever’ kind of thing.  The generation sources within a region, rarely changed, or have rarely changed over time.   But that is of course changing significantly in the new era that we live in.

Lets take the interplay (both historical and moving forward) of the Power Cost and its relationship with the Generation Mix.  As humans we like to think in simplistic terms.  Power costs for a specific region are ‘so many cents per kilowatt hour’ this changes based upon whether you are measured at a residential, commercial, or industrial rate schedule.   The rate schedule is a function of how much power you ultimately consume or promise to consume to the local utility.   The reality of course is much more complicated than that.   Power rates fluctuate constantly based upon the overall mix.   Natural disasters, regulation, etc. can have a significant impact on power cost over time.   Therefore its generally wise to look at the Generation Mix Price Volatility through the longer term lens of history and see how a region’s power costs oscillate between these types of events.     However you decide to capture or benchmark this it is a factor that should be considered. 

This is especially true when you take this Volatility factor and apply it the changing requirements of Carbon Reporting and impacts.  While the United States is unlikely to have a law similar to the CRC in the UK (Carbon Reduction Commitment), it will see legislation and regulation impacting the energy producers.  

You might be asking yourself, ‘Who cares if they go after those big bad energy companies and force them to put more ‘green power in their mixes’.  Well lets think about the consequences of these actions to you the user, and why its important to your site selection activity.

As the energy producers are regulated to create a more ‘green’ mix into their systems, two things will happen.  The first of course is that rates will rise.  The energy producers will need to sink large amounts of capital to invest into these technologies, plants, research and development, etc to come to alignment with the legal requirements they are being regulated to.   This effect will be uneven as many areas around the globe have quite a disparate mix of energy from region to region.   This will also mean that ‘greener’ power will likely result in ‘more expensive power’.   Assessing an area for the potential impacts to these kinds of changes is definitely important in a data center build scenario as you likely have a desire to ensure that your facility has the longest possible life which could span a couple of decades.  The second thing which may be a bit harder to guess at, is ‘which technology’ is a given region or area likely to pick and its resulting carbon output impact.   While I have a definite approach to thinking through such things, this is essentially the beginning of the true secret sauce to site selection expertise and the help you may require if you don’t have an internal group to go through this kind of data and modeling.  This is going to have an interesting impact on the ‘clustering’ effect that happens in our industry at large.

We have seen many examples like Quincy, Washington and San Antonio, Texas where the site selection process has led to many Data Center providers locating in the same area to benefit from this type of analysis (even if not directly exposed to the criteria).  There is a story (that I don’t know if its true or not) that in the early days when a new burger chain was looking to expand where it would place its restaurants, it used the footprint of its main competitor as its guide. The thinking was that they probably had a very scientific method for that selection and they would receive that same ancillary benefit without the cost and effort.   Again, not sure if that is true or not, but its definitely something likely to happen in our industry. 

In many markets these types of selections are in high demand.   Ascent Corporation out of St. Louis is in the process of building a modern facility just down the street from the Microsoft Mega-Facility near Chicago.   While Ascent was a part of the original Microsoft effort to build at that location, there has been an uptick in interest for being close to that facility for the same reasons as I have outlined here.  The result is their CH2 facility is literally a stones throw from the Microsoft Behemoth.  The reasons? Proximity to power, fiber, and improved water infrastructure are already there in abundance.  The facility even boasts container capabilities just like its neighbor.   The Elmhurst Electrical Substation sits directly across the highway from the facility with the first set of transmission poles within easy striking distance.  

Elmhurst Electrical Yard

The Generation mix of that area has a large nuclear component which has little to no carbon impact, and generates long term stability in terms of power cost fluctuations.   According to Phil Horstmann, President of Ascent, their is tremendous interest in the site and one of the key draws is the proximity of its nearby neighbor.  In the words of one potential tenant ‘Its like the decision to go to IBM in the 80s.  Its hard to argue against a location where Microsoft or Google has placed one of its facilities.’

This essentially dictates that there will be increasing demand on areas where this analysis is done or has been perceived to be done.   This is especially true where co-location and hosting providers can align their interests with those commercial locations where there is market demand.  While those that follow first movers will definitely benefit from these decisions (especially those without dedicated facility requirements), first movers continue to have significant advantage if they can get this process correct.

Tying into the power conversation is that of water.  With the significant drive for economization (whether water based or air-based)  water continues to be a factor.  What many people don’t understand is that in many markets the discharge water is clean to dump into the sewage system and to ‘dirty’ to discharge to retention ponds.  This causes all kinds of potential issues and understanding the underlying water landscape is important.   The size of the metropolitan sewage environments, ability to dig your own well efforts, the local water table and aquifer issues, your intended load and resulting water requirements, how the local county, muncipality, or region views discharge in general and which chemicals and in what quantities is important to think about today.  However, as the use of water increases in terms of its potential environmental scrutiny – water is quickly rising on the site selection radar of many operators and those with long term holds.

I hope this brief talk was helpful.  I hope to post a few other key factors and a general discussion in the near future.  

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Open Source Data Center Initiative

There are many in the data center industry that have repeatedly called for change in this community of ours.  Change in technology, change in priorities, Change for the future.  Over the years we have seen those changes come very slowly and while they are starting to move a little faster now, (primarily due to the economic conditions and scrutiny over budgets more-so than a desire to evolve our space) our industry still faces challenges and resistance to forward progress.   There are lots of great ideas, lots of forward thinking, but moving this work to execution and educating business leaders as well as data center professionals to break away from those old stand by accepted norms has not gone well.

That is why I am extremely happy to announce my involvement with the University of Missouri in the launch of a Not-For-Profit Data Center specific organization.   You might have read the formal announcement by Dave Ohara who launched the news via his industry website, GreenM3.   Dave is another of of those industry insiders who has long been perplexed by the lack of movement and initiative we have had on some great ideas and stand outs doing great work.  More importantly, it doesn’t stop there.  We have been able to put together quite a team of industry heavy-weights to get involved in this effort.  Those announcements are forthcoming, and when they do, I think you will get a sense of the type of sea-change this effort could potentially have.

One of the largest challenges we have with regards to data centers is education.   Those of you who follow my blog know that I believe that some engineering and construction firms are incented ‘not to change’ or implementing new approaches.  The cover of complexity allows customers to remain in the dark while innovation is stifled. Those forces who desire to maintain an aura of black box complexity  around this space and repeatedly speak to the arcane arts of building out  data center facilities have been at this a long time.  To them, the interplay of systems requiring one-off monumental temples to technology on every single build is the norm.  Its how you maximize profit, and keep yourself in a profitable position. 

When I discussed this idea briefly with a close industry friend, his first question naturally revolved around how this work would compete with that of the Green Grid, or Uptime Institute, Data Center Pulse, or the other competing industry groups.  Essentially  was this going to be yet another competing though-leadership organization.  The very specific answer to this is no, absolutely not.   

These groups have been out espousing best practices for years.  They have embraced different technologies, they have tried to educate the industry.  They have been pushing for change (for the most part).  They do a great job of highlighting the challenges we face, but for the most part have waited around for universal good will and monetary pressures to make them happen.  It dawned on us that there was another way.   You need to ensure that you build something that gains mindshare, that gets the business leadership attention, that causes a paradigm shift.   As we put the pieces together we realized that the solution had to be credible, technical, and above all have a business case around it.   It seemed to us the parallels to the Open Source movement and the applicability of the approach were a perfect match.

To be clear, this Open Source Data Center Initiative is focused around execution.   Its focused around putting together an open and free engineering framework upon which data center designs, technologies, and the like can be quickly put together and more-over standardize the approaches that both end-users and engineering firms approach the data center industry. 

Imagine if you will a base framework upon which engineering firms, or even individual engineers can propose technologies and designs, specific solution vendors could pitch technologies for inclusion and highlight their effectiveness, more over than all of that it will remove much mystery behind the work that happens in designing facilities and normalize conversations.    

If you think of the Linux movement, and all of those who actively participate in submitting enhancements, features, even pulling together specific build packages for distribution, one could even see such things emerging in the data center engineering realm.   In fact with the myriad of emerging technologies assisting in more energy efficiency, greater densities, differences in approach to economization (air or water), use of containers or non use of containers, its easy to see the potential for this component based design.  

One might think that we are effectively trying to put formal engineering firms out of business with this kind of work.  I would argue that this is definitely not the case.  While it may have the effect of removing some of the extra-profit that results from the current ‘complexity’ factor, this initiative should specifically drive common requirements, and lead to better educated customers, drive specific standards, and result in real world testing and data from the manufacturing community.  Plus, as anyone knows who has ever actually built a data center, the devil is in the localization and details.  Plus as this is an open-source initiative we will not be formally signing the drawings from a professional engineering perspective. 

Manufacturers could submit their technologies, sample application of their solutions, and have those designs plugged into a ‘package’ or ‘RPM’ if I could steal a term from the Redhat Linux nomenclature.  Moreover, we will be able to start driving true visibility of costs both upfront and operating and associate those costs with the set designs with differences and trending from regions around the world.  If its successful, it could be a very good thing.  

We are not naive about this however.  We certainly expect there to be some resistance to this approach out there and in fact some outright negativity from those firms that make the most of the black box complexity components. 

We will have more information on the approach and what it is we are trying to accomplish very soon.  

 

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CIO Magazine Data Center Roundtable

On Wednesday January 13th, I will be co-hosting a Roundtable Dinner with Chicago area CIOs on the topic of data centers and the data center industry at large.   The event is sponsored by CIO Magazine and is likely to be a wide ranging conversation given the mix of executives slated to come.  The group will be made up of technology leadership from a diverse set of industries including Universities, Manufacturing, Financial Institutions, and Hospitality.  

I am betting the topics will range from data center legislation, impact of the cloud, technologies, and key trends.

I am looking forward to some good mid-western steak, great conversation, and walking away from the meeting with more important perspectives on what we are facing as an industry. 

I will try and post a summary of topics discussed later this week. 

 

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A look back and a look forward…

For those of you who are not on the Digital Realty Trust email distribution for such things, I recently did a video for them on some reflections of the past and looking ahead with regards to the data center industry, technologies, and such.  You can find the video link here if your interested.   

I for one would never trust some data center dork in a video.

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Panel at Data Center Dynamics – London

On November 10th and 11th I will be speaking on two panels at the Data Center Dynamics event in London.  The theme for the two day event is Carbon: Risk or Opportunity.   In the morning, On Day One, I am speaking  in a panel entitled The Data Center Efficiency Schism …New Realities in Design with Ed Ansett from HP/EYP and my old friend Lex Coors from Interxion.   The afternoon has me on another panel with Liam Newcombe with the British Computer Society entitled ‘The Shape of the Cloud to Come’ moderated by Data Center Dynamics CTO, Stephen Worn.  Liam and I have passion for this space and our past conversations on this topic in particular and other related topics have been quite entertaining (or so I have been told).  To top it off, this panel is moderated by Stephen who is not known for being timid either, so I am really looking forward to the discussion there.

The entire event should be quite super-charged especially given the recent Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation in the UK.  For those of you keeping a close eye on the emerging impact of carbon legislation across the world this event is likely to source a number of lightning rods and thought leadership to watch out for.  

If you have not signed up and will be in London, I would strongly encourage you to do so.   As always if you happen to see me wandering about, please feel free to stop and chat awhile. 

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