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


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.


C02K Doubter? Watch the Presidential address today

Are you a Data Center professional who doubts that Carbon legislation is going to happen or that this initiative will never get off the ground?   This afternoon President Obama plans to outline his intention to assess a cost for Carbon consumption at a conference highlighting his economic accomplishments to date.   The backdrop of this of course is the massive oil rig disaster in the Gulf.

As my talk at the Uptime Institute Symposium highlighted this type of legislation will have a big impact on data center and mission critical professionals.  Whether you know it or not, you will be front and center in assisting with the response, collection and reporting required to react to this kind of potential legislation.  In my talk where I questioned the audience in attendance it was quite clear that most of those in the room were vastly ill-prepared and ill-equipped to this kind of effort. 

If passed this type of legislation is going to cause a severe reaction inside organizations to ensure that they are in compliance and likely lead to a huge increase of spending in an effort to collect energy information along with reporting.  For many organizations this will result in significant spending.

image The US House of Representatives has already passed a version of this known as the Waxman Markey bill.   You can bet that there will be a huge amount of pressure to get a Senate version passed and out the door in the coming weeks and months.

This should be a clarion call for data center managers to step up and raise awareness within their organizations about this pending legislation and take a proactive role in establishing a plan for a corporate response.   Take an inventory of your infrastructure and assess what will you need to begin collecting this information?  It might even be wise to get a few quotes to get an idea or ballpark cost of what it might take to bring your organization up to the task.  Its probably better to start doing this now, than to be told by the business to get it done.


More Chiller Side Chat Redux….

I have been getting continued feedback on the Chiller Side Chat that we did live on Monday, September 14th.  I wanted to take a quick moment and discuss one of the recurring themes of emails I have been receiving on the topic of data center site selection and the decisions that result at the intersection of data center technology, process and cost.    One of the key things that we technical people often forget is that the data center is first and foremost a business decision.  The business (whatever kind of business it is) has a requirement to improve efficiency through automation, store information, or whatever it is that represents the core function of that business.  The data center is at the heart of those technology decisions and the ultimate place where those solutions will reside.  

As the primary technical folks in an organization whether you represent IT or Facilities,  we can find ourselves in the position of getting deeply involved with the technical aspects of the facility – the design, the construction or retro-fit, the amount of power or cooling required, the amount of redundancy we need and the like.  Those in upper management however view this substantially in a different way.    Its all about business.  As I have gotten a slew of these mails recently I decided to try and post my own response.  As I thought about how I would go about this, I would keep going back to Chris Crosby’s discussion at Data Center Dynamics about two years ago.   As you know I was at Microsoft, at the time and felt that he did an excellent job of outlining the way the business person views data center decisions.    So I went digging around and found this video of Chris talking about it.  Hopefully this helps!  If not let me know and I am happy to discuss further or more specifically.


Chiller-Side Chats : Is Power Capping Ready for PrimeTime?

I was very pleased at the great many responses to my data center capacity planning chat.  They came in both public and private notes with more than a healthy population of those centered around my comments on power capping and their potential disagreement on why I don’t think the technology/applications/functionality is 100% there yet. So I decided to throw up an impromptu ad-hoc follow-on chat on Power Capping.  How’s that for service?

What’s your perspective?

In a nutshell my resistance can be summed up and defined in the exploration of two phrases.  The first is ‘prime time’ and how I define it from where I come at the problem from.  The second is the definition of the term ‘data center’ and in what context I am using it as it relates to Power Capping.

I think to adequately address my position I will answer it from the perspective of the three groups that these Chiller Side Chats are aimed at namely, the Facility side, the IT side, and ultimately the business side of the problem. 

Let’s start with the latter phrase : ‘data center’ first.  To the facility manager this term refers to the actual building, room, infrastructure that IT gear sits in.   His definition of Data Center includes things like remote power panels, power whips, power distribution units, Computer Room Air Handlers (CRAHs), generators, and cooling towers.   It all revolves around the distribution and management of power.

From an IT perspective the term is usually represented or thought of in terms of servers, applications, or network capabilities.  It sometimes blends in to include some aspects of the facility definition but only as it relates to servers and equipment.   I have even heard it used to applied to “information” which is even more ethereal.  Its base units could be servers, storage capacity, network capacity and the like.

From a business perspective the term ‘data center’ is usually lumped together to include both IT and facilities but at a very high level.  Where the currency for our previous two groups are technical in nature (power, servers, storage, etc) – the currency for the business side is cold hard cash.   It involves things like OPEX costs, CAPEX costs, and Return on Investment.

So from the very start, one has to ask, which data center are you referring to?  Power Capping is a technical issue, and can be implemented at either of the two technical perspectives.   It also will have an impact on the business aspect but it can also be a barrier to adoption.

We believe these truths to be self-evident

Here are some of the things that I believe to be inalienable truths about data centers today and in some of these probably forever if history is any indication.

  1. Data Centers are heterogeneous in the make up of facilities equipment with different brands of equipment across the functions.
  2. Data Centers are largely heterogeneous in the make up of their servers population, network population, etc.
  3. Data Centers house non-server equipment like routers, switches, tape storage devices and the like.
  4. Data Centers generally have differing designs, redundancy, floor layout, PDU distribution configurations.
  5. Today most racks are unintelligent, those that are not, are vendor specific and/or proprietary-also-Expensive versus bent steel.
  6. Except in a very few cases, there is NO integration between asset management, change management, incident management, problem management systems between IT *AND* facilities systems.

These will be important in a second so mark this spot on the page as it ties into my thoughts on the definition of prime time.  You see, to me in this context, Prime Time means that when a solution is deployed it will actually solve problems and reduce the number of things a Data Center Manager has to do or worry about.   This is important because notice I did not say anything about making something easier.  Sometimes, easier doesn’t solve the problem. 

There is some really incredible work going on at some of the server manufacturers in the area of power capping.   After all they know their products better than anyone.  For gratuitous purposes because he posts and comments here, I refer you to the Eye on Blades blog at HP by Tony Harvey.  On his post responding to the previous Chiller-side chat, he talked up the amazing work that HP is doing and is already available on some G5 boxes and all G6 boxes along with additional functionality available in the blade enclosures. 

Most of the manufacturers are doing a great job here.  The dynamic load stuff is incredibly cool as well.    However, the business side of my brain requires that I state that this level of super-cool wizardry usually comes at additional cost.   Lets compare that with Howard, the every day data center manager who does it today, who from a business perspective is a sunk cost.   Its essentially free.   Additionally, simple things like performing an SNMP poll for power draw on a box (which used to be available in some server products for free) have been removed or can only be accessed through additional operating licenses.  Read as more cost.    So the average business is faced with getting this capability for servers at an additional cost, or make Howard the Data Center manager do it for free and know that his general fear of losing his job if things blow up is a good incentive for doing it right. 

Aside from that, it still has challenges in Truth #2.  Extremely rare is the data center that uses only one server manufacturer.  While its the dream of most server manufacturers, its more common to find DELL Servers, along side HP Servers, alongside Rackable. Add to that fact that even in the same family you are likely to see multiple generations of gear.  Does the business have to buy into the proprietary solutions of each to get the functionality they need for power capping?  Is there an industry standard in Power Capping that ensures we can all live in peace and harmony?  No.  Again that pesky business part of my mind says, cost-cost-cost.  Hey Howard – Go do your normal manual thing.

Now lets tackle Truth #3 from a power capping perspective.   Solving the problem from the server side is only solving part of the problem.   How many network gear manufacturers have power capping features? You would be hard pressed to find a number on one hand.   In a related thought, one of the standard connectivity trends in the industry is top of rack switching.  Essentially for purposes of distribution, a network switch is placed at the top of the rack to handle server connectivity to the network.     Does our proprietary power capping software catch the power draw of that switch?  Any network gear for that matter?  Doubtful.  So while I may have super cool power capping on my servers I am still screwed at the rack layer –where data center managers manage from as one of their base units.   Howard may be able to have some level of Surety that his proprietary server power capping stuff is humming along swimmingly, he still has to do the work manually.  Its definitely simpler for Howard, to get that task done potentially quicker, but we have not actually reduced steps in the process.   Howard is still manually walking the floor.  

Which brings up a good point, Howard the Data Center manager manages by his base unit of rack.  In most data centers, racks can have different server manufacturers, different equipment types (servers, routers, switches, etc), and can even be of different sizes.    While some manufacturers have built state of the art racks specific for their equipment it doesn’t solve the problem.  We have now stumbled upon Truth #5.

Since we have been exploring how current power capping technologies meet at the intersection of IT and facilities it brings up the last point I will touch on regarding tools. I will get there by asking some basic questions as to the operations of a typical data center.  In terms of Operations does your IT asset management system provide for racks as an item of configuration?  Does your data center manager use the same system?  Does your system provide for multiple power variables?  does it track power at all?  Does the rack have power configuration associated with it?  Or does your version of Howard use spreadsheets?  I know where my bet is on your answers.  Tooling has a long way to go in this space.   Facilities vendors are trying to approach it from their perspective, IT tools providers are doing the same, along with tools and mechanisms from equipment manufacturers as well. There are a few tools that have been custom developed to do this kind of thing, but they have been done for use in very specific environments.  We have finally arrived at Power Capping and Truth #6. 

Please don’t get me wrong, I think that ultimately power capping will finally fulfill its great promise and do tremendous wonders.  Its one of those rare areas which will have a very big impact in this industry.   If you have the ability to deploy the vendor specific solutions (which are indeed very good), you should. It will make things a bit easier, even if it doesn’t remove steps.   However I think ultimately in order to have real effect its going to have to compete with the cost of free.   Today this work is done by the data center managers with no apparent additional cost from a business perspective.   If I had some kind of authority I would call for there to be a Standard to be put in place around Power Capping.  Even if its quite minimal it would have a huge impact.   It could be as simple as providing three things.  First provide for free and unfiltered access to an SNMP Mib that allows access to the current power usage information of any IT related device.  Second, provide a Mib, which through the use of a SET command could place a hard upper limit of power usage.  This setting could be read by the box and/or the operating system and start to slow things down or starve resources on the box for a time.  Lastly, the ability to read that same Mib.    This would allow for the poor cheap Howard’s to take advantage of at least simplifying their environments.  tremendously.  It would still provide software and hardware manufacturers to build and charge for the additional and dynamic features they would require. 


Chiller-Side Chats: When Worlds Collide

To most outsiders the datacenter industry may seem to be quite parochial.   A niche blend at the intersection of building and IT technologies.   Even to many senior business managers both of these areas in and of themselves are not necessarily considered business critical. As such, little if any time is spent concentrating on the issues this space.  That is of course until it becomes business critical.  At that time many business managers struggle to navigate this complex world.  That complexity can drive frustration, confusion, and is prone to misinformation ultimately leading to bad business decisions.  In many cases it might even be the first time they speak to those in the organization responsible for these assets.

Conversely, those who have had responsibility for the care and maintenance of the data center facilities themselves are now thrust into the spotlight and into a foreign world of business-speak.  Usually these professionals report in through Corporate Real Estate services, where skill sets tend to lean towards more generic building issues.  Real Estate groups tend to minimize the complexity of these facilities and apply what they know rather than what is truly happening. It leads to an interesting time for data center professionals who tend to be more engineering focused.  Normally quite content to talk at an engineering and operations level, they now find themselves thrust into a world of business jargon, return on investments, capital planning, and business impacts.  Out of their comfort zone and frustrated by the inability for management to grasp the engineering aspects of the issues at hand, cynicism increases and tempers can flare.

To make it even more confusing the IT organization, normally the largest user of those facilities and the primary advocate and buffer between business management and the data center organization rarely understands the issues within the facility itself or the challenges the advancements in server and IT technology may actually have in the environment in which their services run.  Even when they believe themselves to be assisting their data center comrades they may unintentionally be causing more harm than good.  Data Center professionals (at the facility level) rarely understand server and application technologies which are increasingly placing strain on their facilities.

Three worlds have collided and its never pretty.   In my experience and in conversations with many customers in all three categories its a time that fosters frustration, mistrust, and stress.  Its also a wonderful time for less than scrupulous vendors, contractors, and consultants to take advantage of the situation and cause poor decisions to be made.   I am not saying that all consultants are bad or ill intentioned, in fact, there are some phenomenal organizations and products out there.   Its just that you need to be aware of the biases and “religious” debates in this space.   If your a business manager think about the debates around out-sourcing versus in-sourcing, off-shoring versus near-shoring.  If you are an IT professional think back to the times of Ethernet versus Token Ring, Oracle versus SAP, Windows versus Netware or Windows versus Linux.  While it may it may seem strange to people in IT and business management, the data center world suffers from many of the same things.  Concepts like AC versus DC, batteries versus rotary-based UPS systems raised floor versus on-slab.  Different firms have different biases and religious affiliations.

With this post, I am kicking off a series of posts in which my sincerest wish is to help all three groups during these stressful times.   Having spent significant time in all three camps I will offer up my own personal take on the issues at hand.  I am calling them Chiller-Side Chats.   From time to time I will post my thoughts on various issues aimed at bridging the communication between these organizations.  I strongly encourage anyone reading these posts to drop comments or offer up suggestions so we can have a lively discussion on these topics.