Data Center

Ian Dixon (Global) - No Short Cuts When It Comes To Mitigating Downtime Risk

Data centre disruption can have devastating consequences for the viability of a business

With IT departments operating under constrained budgets, one of the greatest challenges managers face over the coming year is to ensure effective risk mitigation strategies are in place for uninterruptible access to their organisation's data. This is an essential requirement for businesses seeking to stay competitive and agile in today's data-driven world.

Data usage continues to evolve and grow in complexity. Instant access to data is now a mission-critical asset essential for every activity from handling financial transactions to managing patient information and powering customer applications. Inability to access this data can have devastating consequences for the viability of a business in terms of reputational damage, reduced productivity and loss of market share.

At the heart of efforts to minimise the threat of disruption is the organisation's data centre. As well as providing instant access to business-critical data and applications throughout the organisation, the data centre must have the capacity to cope with increasingly computer-intensive business models and an exponential growth in demand for data storage. Above all else, it must be resilient in the face of unforeseen disruptions.

Recent high-profile examples of outages highlight the staggering costs that can result from disruptions to data services. According to a 2011 study by the Ponemon Institute, a data centre outage can cost an organisation an average of £3,500 per minute.

The Risk Mitigation Equation
It's imperative that senior decision makers within the business recognise the need to have a robust strategy in place to limit downtime and ensure uninterruptible access to data. As part of this process, the business must first determine its required level of data availability, the financial threat arising from downtime and the business's risk tolerance to disruption. It then comes down to balancing the financial investment spread over the lifetime of the facility against the cost that would result from any interruption - including impact on brand, bottom line and viability through lost competitiveness.

Data Centre Tiers
The business's level of risk tolerance will be reflected in the resilience level of the data centre - commonly referred to as Tiering. In particular, the four-tier model pioneered by the Uptime Institute codifies the relationship between the data centre and its availability. Building a data centre from scratch typically requires compliance with a given tier rating - a complex process associated with a significant proportion of the design and build costs.

The higher the Tier, the more resilient the data centre is to failure of key components. A Tier I or Tier II solution would be the norm for duplication sites or organisations with IT requirements that allow scheduled downtimes outside of normal business hours or those where the impact of downtime is minimal. More typically businesses would require a Tier III solution, where the data centre will never have to be shut down for planned maintenance. Tier III is a preference for many organisations particularly in financial services, government departments and global organisations with 24 x 7 data requirements.

A Tier IV rating involves duplication of all components and would be the de facto standard for critical facilities - typically in financial services where the cost of a short downtime can run into millions of pounds. With Tier IV, the data centre is fault tolerant even during maintenance.

An important consideration is whether to seek tier certification by a vendor-neutral third party. This provides an independent assessment and assurance that each and every detail of a high-availability design is in place in the data centre - whether it's a new build or a hall in a shared facility.

Ownership or Colocation
In the current economic climate, organisations need to reassess their own capability before deciding whether to own or operate a dedicated facility or alternatively opt for an outsourced approach. An outsourced model would involve leasing or occupying space in a third party's facility, with varying degrees of management and control. While some businesses are reluctant to allow their data to be housed in a facility that they do not totally own and operate, others view the data centre as a non-core competency which they are prepared to allow a trusted third party to build and operate. This is certainly the trend for Tier III/IV data centres as businesses seek more sophisticated solutions for managing information risk.

Future-Proofing the Data Centre
One of the greatest challenges when deploying a data centre is managing the risks involved in predicting how much and what kind of data centre capacity will be needed in ten or fifteen years' time. Sometimes overlooked, this can have enormous implications in terms of both upfront and long-term costs for businesses - particularly at a time of increasing demands to reduce capital and operational expenditure. Any solution should therefore offer dynamic scalability of the facility so that unforecasted demand for IT capacity can be effectively and efficiently managed without requiring data centre downtime.

Management & Operation
It is one thing building to a high technical spec, but the investment is wasted unless rigorous systems and practices are put in place to ensure the facility is managed and operated to the same level. With 70% of unplanned data centre outages caused by human error, this stage is of critical importance in addressing on-going threats to the data centre and ensuring the facility satisfies the required uptime criteria.

Given the business risks associated with data centre downtime, an independent validation of the facility's on-going management and operational programme should be considered. This would typically take into account everything from the processes for servicing equipment and investment in training through to the effectiveness of its communications to staff and subcontractors.

Ultimately, any programme for mitigating operational and financial risks will only be as resilient as the weakest links along the design, build and operations chain. Failure to address these weaknesses can have a detrimental impact on the viability of a business.


By Ian Dixon, VP Operations, Colt Data Centre Services



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