It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has driven increased awareness of the critical role data centres have in society, writes Darren Watkins, Managing Director for VIRTUS Data Centres. We are so reliant on online services that, for many, they have become as important as major public utilities.

We only have to look to the recent internet outage at cloud service provider, Fastly, to see the chaos that service disruption can cause. Websites such as, Amazon and the FT were all affected. This shows just how critical robust, reliable and high-speed connectivity is now both expected and needed for home working and home schooling, as well as online shopping, exercising and socialising have become the norm over the last eighteen months.

We’ve never been more dependent on data centres and the cloud to work, collaborate and socially interact. This means that data centres are now firmly on the boardroom agenda for organisations across all industries. Enterprises have realised that they simply can’t take any risks with their data centre strategies and have set about the task of finding the best-in-class operators with whom they should entrust this critical requirement. Organisations of all sizes are now looking for data centre partners that can be trusted to deliver robust, efficient, scalable facilities, that can cope with any situation.

With so much choice out there, making the right decision isn’t always easy, so how do companies go about selecting a reliable data centre partner? And how can they make sure that they choose a provider who is able to serve their needs not just now, but in an uncertain future too?

Why experience is crucial

If the pandemic has taught the business world one thing, it’s that being able to cope with evolving situations is critical. Keeping the show on the road has been the number one priority for companies in all industries, and businesses are relying on their data centre partners to act as the lynchpin for business continuity. To meet this need, data centre partners must provide assurances with regards to uptime and availability, reliability and disaster recovery - demonstrating that whatever happens, they can help businesses keep running.

It’s here where experience really matters. Businesses must ensure they choose a data centre provider that has a solid, proven and relevant track record in delivering consistency in product and service, over time and in the regions that are important to them. Only the most experienced providers are in a position to take the learnings of every design, build and operations project they have undertaken, and develop best practice and provide service assurances, based on years of learnings.

Dealing with data

During the pandemic, we’ve seen an explosion in internet traffic like never before, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Even as offices reopen, we’re likely to see remote (or hybrid) working embraced for the long term, by companies who appreciate the flexibility, productivity and cost saving benefits it brings. And the ‘Amazon generation’, who are used to getting goods and services quickly and easily are unlikely to return to relying solely on in-store shopping. 

However, all this extra online traffic puts intense pressure on the enabling infrastructure - security, servers, storage and network - of any organisation. IT departments need to deploy more forward-looking capacity management if they are to proactively meet their current and future needs. This means selecting a data centre partner that can provide enough capacity for the digital world and its demands, and adapt and flex to their customers’ constantly changing needs. Importantly, it means seeking out providers who can guarantee this for the long term.

Getting the sustainability strategy right

For every online shopping click or Zoom meeting, there is an energy and environmental impact. The data centre industry has a responsibility to ensure it is being as efficient and sustainable as it can be while maintaining utility levels of service. The pressure is on; the Government has mandated that the industry can (and should) be carbon neutral by 2030. The good news is that plenty of good work is being done in this arena already.

One area of success is in renewable energy - as many forward-looking data centre providers move away from fossil fuels for the long term. Some providers are committing to using 100% zero carbon power - benefiting from increases in sustainability, reliability and cost effectiveness. Power hungry elements like cooling are fast evolving too. Trailblazing operators have been using techniques like indirect adiabatic cooling for some time, which provide the cooling functionality data centres need, but with very low energy use.

However, in assessing providers’ sustainability promises, experience is once again crucial. The most qualified providers are committed to delivering a ‘cradle to grave’ sustainability strategy, where environmental ambitions are built into every step of data centre construction and operational management including maintenance - rather than trying to retro-fit or bolt-on discrete initiatives, or just buying certified power.

Security matters

Traditionally, security has been one of the main reasons that some large organisations have preferred to build and manage their own data centres. But today, because on-premise solutions are both financially unviable and difficult to manage, this sometimes isn’t an option, so perhaps it’s no surprise that organisations are prioritising security provision in their data centre provider.

When it comes to physical security, the most-savvy providers offer robust perimeter fencing, access control, CCTV external and internal, restricted pass code access, man and vehicle traps, and more. Once again, this is where a proven track record and solid experience really matters.

Experienced colocation providers not only offer a full suite of benefits, including service level guarantees that offer 100% availability of power and cooling, 24/7 physical security and compliance with all the latest ISO certifications for managing critical infrastructure, but can also demonstrate that they have a proven track record in keeping customers’ data physically safe.

Regulation is also important here and can be a good indicator of just how robust is the provider’s security provision. For example, BS27001 evidences processes and procedures and reassures customers that every aspect of our security is tested regularly.

An experienced approach to innovation

Experience really shows its value through Operational Excellence, and this includes when things go wrong. No matter how detailed the planning, how innovative the design of the data centre is or how good the people and technology are, something will inevitably go wrong, and equipment will fail for one reason or another.

It will be the monitoring, reacting and operating procedures - evolved over years of learnings - that ensure customer experience isn’t negatively impacted when these events occur. Only with experience and longevity can providers build robust processes, tried and tested in live scenarios, to ensure the best possible levels of service.

When looking to the future, as with most sectors, the data centre industry is fast evolving and continually innovating. From cooling systems, to security, to monitoring, data centre providers most constantly use their knowledge and experience to innovate and improve.

Trends like immersion cooling, back-up power and generator solutions are all interesting areas for the future, which providers are working hard to investigate and implement. And, whilst sustainability will continue to be an important concern to be reviewed and addressed by all businesses, it will be the responsibility of everyone to continue to explore what can be done to help mitigate climate change.

Whilst carbon neutral is the stated position of many providers, the more forward thinking are looking to go further and become carbon zero. Other areas under review include alternative sources of back-up power and the wider adoption of fuel cells as a standby energy source. To date, most aren’t workable at the scale needed for large data centres, but research continues.

Innovation must be a priority not just now, but also in the future. Data centre providers must keep using their experience to innovate if they are to meet the needs of both new and their longest serving customers. The most established providers must draw on their years of experience in order to fuel their innovation strategies - building on their work with customers to build meaningful improvements and innovations.

It’s hard not to agree that there has never been a more critical time for data centre providers, but arguably there has also never been this level of scrutiny and pressure to deliver. As we move through an extended period of post-pandemic uncertainty, it’s the digital infrastructure that is going to keep businesses, and ultimately the economy, running.

With a spotlight on data centres, the relationship between customers and their data centre partner is crucial. Selecting an expert provider that can not only meet your demands - but that can prove its credentials based on past experience - is now, more than ever, a business-critical decision. One of the key indicator of success is experience.

There are many eye catching new builds, and new names in the market, but it’s those providers who have a proven track record in delivering on capacity challenges, service reliability, security, uptime and innovation, who will ultimately win the day.