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Five tips on selecting a data center location

Data center construction comes with a host of tough problems. Finding the right place is challenge No. 1. Here are tips to help you vet your location.

This nerve-wracking economy might be prompting all kinds of cutbacks at your company, but chances are a new data...

center is not one of them. Construction of data centers boomed last year and is expected to remain strong in 2008, according to a survey conducted last fall. More than 60% of respondents said they would be involved in a data center construction project in 2008.

Designing a data center comes with a Rubik's Cube worth of moving parts, but location, location, location is the first piece of the puzzle to solve. Site selection is critical to increasing uptime and controlling costs, said analysts Stephanie Balaouras and Galen Schreck, who cover IT infrastructure at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Here are some of their pointers from an April 17 report on data center site selection, with commentary from John Burke, principal research analyst at Nemertes Research Group Inc. in Mokena, Ill.

Research threats before taking action

Minimize the risk of natural and man-made threats by researching the locations under consideration for your data center. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists natural disasters by state and by year dating back to 1953. Balaouras and Schreck advise that you determine both the frequency and the severity of natural disasters in the locations you are considering.

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U.S. Department of Transportation

Intentional threats such as sabotage and terrorism are harder to predict and more difficult to research. Balaouras and Schreck recommend meeting with your company's risk management professionals and raising questions about whether the location has landmarks, government buildings or financial markets that are likely targets for terrorists, and what is the likelihood of civil unrest or rioting. Historically, densely populated urban areas carry more risk of attack than sparsely populated rural areas.

Weather and power at the outer limits

Nemertes Research analyst Burke points out that location will be dictated by what your new data center needs to accomplish. The survey found that the top driver for the current data center building boom is disaster recovery (DR). Roughly 25% of survey respondents listed DR as their No. 1 motivation for data center construction.

"If you are putting together a new data center to serve as a failover site, the first thing you want to do is figure out how far away you can put the center. You need to figure out the limitations on distance based on what you run and who you have to serve," Burke said.

So, for example, if you can be only 100 miles from New York, or 300 miles from Chicago, you need to take that into consideration first, "then go right out to the edge of your safe zone," Burke said. "Then look for a site that gives you the maximum possible separation from your current location, with respect to weather and with respect to large regional power grid interconnections."

If you are upgrading from your old data center to a new one, you will likely want one close to where the current center is -- but with better characteristics. These might include better access to power and being away from areas susceptible to harm from bad weather, such as floodplains. "You can't really do much about tornados, but there are other things you can actually pick in a way that makes a difference."

On foreign soil

The reasons for putting a data center in a foreign country are growing as companies go global. But with foreign sites come additional risks, warn Balaouras and Schreck. Determine whether the local currency is stable or prone to significant fluctuations, and consider the currency of your country's trading partners as well, they said. The Russian financial crisis of 1998, for example, not only destabilized the economy in Russia, but it also affected neighboring countries, as Russian demand for goods shriveled and cheap Russian exports flooded their markets.

Companies putting data centers overseas must also educate themselves on government policies that affect immigration and employee benefits and the government's record on work stoppages and strikes. Political instability poses a big risk to infrastructure, so you should look for evidence of social injustice or separatist movements before choosing a site for the data center, Balaouras and Schreck said.

Companies taking a follow-the-sun-approach to data centers will want to choose a location that will serve as the primary site for their overseas workforce and, ideally, the failover site for their folks in the U.S, Burke said. "If you don't have a workforce over there, you have to ask yourself a lot of hard questions about why you want to put a data center over there," he said.

Political instability is more of an issue in Asia, Africa and the Middle East than in Western Europe, Burke said. Power and communications are trickier overseas because of reliability of the power grid, so he advised taking more care with on-site backups, generators and fuels. The other thing to keep in mind is the regulatory requirements with respect to where data can live, where it can go and where it can come from. "The regulations vary broadly across countries," Burke said.

The right connections

Data centers require huge amounts of energy for power and cooling and enormous bandwidth for connecting to a distributed workforce and other data centers for DR. So it's important to have abundant and affordable telecommunications infrastructure, as well as managed network services if your company requires them, Balaouras and Schreck said. The data center should have multiple feeds from the building through different carriers and -- very important -- diverse routes.

Find out what technology services are available in the area in the event you need rapid recovery of IT assets or IT services to help in data center management, Balaouras and Schreck advise. A location with low risk, cheap power and no IT services should be crossed off the list unless you're prepared to go it alone. It will also be harder to replace equipment or get fuel quickly in remote areas that do not have easy access to railroads, highways or airports.

Bottom line: Research the cost

Cost is not only the price of real estate, Balaouras and Schreck caution. The cost of a raised floor is important for machine room environments; it will be lower on the list for people centers where quality of life and the cost of staff retention are bigger issues. The total cost of relocating employees should be included in the costs model.

People looking for a data center in New York might be finding themselves going to Boston or Philadelphia instead. People in London are looking at Ireland.
John Burke
principal research analystNemertes Research Group Inc.

The flip side is the tremendous cost of building data centers in some of the large metro centers. One of the biggest issues that Burke is seeing is the dislocation of data centers from economic hubs, such as New York and London.

"The expense is forcing people to look for locations outside those immediate areas. So, people looking for a data center in New York might be finding themselves going to Boston or Philadelphia instead. People in London are looking at Ireland," Burke said. Unless there are some really hard latency issues -- if you're the stock exchange and operating in New York -- chances are you might be able to."

Certainly, the data center hosting providers are taking that tack, Burke added. "I've talked to a bunch in the recent past and they've told me they are not building anything else in New York metro. They're done. It's just too expensive."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

Man-made threats include accidents like chemical spills and plane crashes, as well as calculated threats such as terrorist acts, civil unrest and transit strikes. Damage from man-made accidents tends to be localized and more closely linked to transportation and energy infrastructure, such as rail and truck hubs, airports and power plants. The publishes the history of transportation accidents, hazardous materials incidents and other safety data for each state. The list also provides data on topics such as rail and road infrastructure and energy consumption. For help with rising energy costs, Balaouras and Schreck recommend you use the U.S. Department of Energy's statistics to narrow the list to regions with the least expensive power. Labor costs also vary widely among -- and even within -- countries. Labor costs should be a big consideration but not the primary one, they said. It is more important to have a skilled staff to handle this critical function, they said.

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