Considerations in Data Center Selection

9 July 2007

When online gaming was in its infancy, deciding where to host servers was easy; choices ranged from a basement closet to an office cupboard. But as the industry grew, so did the need for operating servers in a safe, secure manner, with redundant bandwidth to provide always-on access to customers, plenty of power to ensure the equipment ran coolly and efficiently, and room to grow to keep up with exponential business growth. This led to a growth in the use of hosted data centers, with managed services provided to support the business. And now there is another option open to online businesses, a portable data center, built to fit within the confines of a standard shipping container. The growth in options raises questions regarding how to choose the computer infrastructure-hosting approach best-suited to your business needs.

A bricks-and-mortar data center is a traditional hosted data center: a building, or a floor of a building, offering either standard or high-density computing conditioning for your technology infrastructure. The better data centers have restricted access to their computing floors, so any work you would like to do to your equipment has to be handled in a staging area in order to reduce the chances of problems for others hosted in the computer room. Some larger data centers have cages or suites available to more privately host your equipment. Security is 24x7x365, power and cooling are provided for the equipment, bandwidth is available for access to the Internet and professional services are available to manage your infrastructure.

Portable data centers have just been developed, the dimensions of which are based on standard shipping containers--in general, 20 or 40 feet long. The portable centers can be transported via rail, truck, ship or even cargo plane, and are built to house high-performance or high-density computing architectures. Chillers and generators are located outside the container, and hooked up to provide cooling and power. With power, water and bandwidth, portable data centers are ready to operate.

Size matters. If your computer infrastructure is no larger than a few servers, housing it within a portion of a rack in a standard bricks-and-mortar data center would be far more economical than purchasing your own portable data center, which--even in relation to the smaller container with capacity for over 250U of servers--would remain mostly empty. However, if your infrastructure is measured in racks, either option could work for you.

A growing business is what everyone wants to have. But exponential growth comes with its own challenges, not the least of which is actively managing the ever-increasing space requirements to house your computer infrastructure. Most bricks-and-mortar data centers are not designed accommodate ongoing, dynamic growth, and you could find yourself running out of room, or located all over the place. This is particularly true for standard-density data centers. Or, the data center could become full, and the time to build a new one often ranges between one and two years. The high-density portable data center is flexible enough that you can add another data center (either large or small) to accommodate your growth. Moreover, the portable data centers can be stacked nine-high, should the need arise.

The time to add an additional data center can be measured in months. But if strong growth follows shortly after the launch of your company, you may not have the capital--an estimated $600,000--required to own your own portable data center, so a hosted bricks-and-mortar data center may be your only available option--that is, unless you can find a way to “rent” one. If you have your own properties, such as a bricks-and-mortar retail establishment, particularly one with multiple locations, odds are good that you have the physical space available (or can make it available, if you so desire) to house your own computer infrastructure. But if you are strictly an online presence, you likely won’t have that luxury, so external hosting would be more likely for you. Furthermore, if your online business is located in an area without much available land, like a smaller island, it could be difficult to find adequate bricks-and-mortar data centers to house your infrastructure. In this case, a portable data center might be a very attractive solution. If, on the other hand, your business is located in a major metropolitan area, perhaps in a technology center with infrastructure and hosting services readily available, pricing and availability may well be very competitive in the hosted-data-center market, leading you to select that option for managing your infrastructure.

Each location raises unique challenges. Urban centers are crowded and expensive. Islands and rural areas are less so, but may lack the infrastructure to adequately support your business. Power stations may not service certain areas. Weather patterns differ--some regions suffer from extreme hot or cold, some are in hurricane or tropical-storm paths. How does this influence your infrastructure hosting decisions?

Although urban areas are crowded, they likely have adequate bricks-and-mortar space available to host your infrastructure, as discussed above. Islands and rural areas become more of a challenge, and an attractive solution could be to place a portable data center in close proximity to a power source to significantly reduce costs and challenges with securing adequate power, particularly as your infrastructure grows and requires larger amounts for operations and cooling. The portable solution brings the data center to the power, rather than having to route the power to the data center. As for areas in tropical-storm and hurricane paths, an attractive option could be to run a hot or warm backup site off-island, in a portable data center, so that you can either bring it to your location and be up and running weeks earlier than otherwise possible--that is, if your online gaming licensing jurisdiction requires local operations--or continue to run it remotely, switching it from your secondary location to your primary one.

A hosted data center can cost between $25 million and $60 million to construct--excluding computer infrastructure. By comparison, a 20-foot-long portable data center, offering the equivalent computing hosting as a traditional 800-square-foot data center, can cost between $2.5 million and $5 million to install--excluding computer infrastructure.

If you really don’t want your computer equipment to be hosted in someone else’s location, and you are able to manage or outsource your hosting infrastructure--plus security, bandwidth connections, and access to a power grid--then your options are to host in your basement or server room (if you are small enough), or build your own data center.

Above are listed several points of comparison to consider when choosing between basement hosting, a standard bricks and mortar data center or a portable data center. Other business needs, such as desired geographic dispersion, privacy needs, time frames to work within, infrastructure density requirements and access to power, will also play a part in your decision making.

Dr. Cheryl B. Giblon is a computer engineer and head of global sales and marketing for eNation Corporation. Giblon earned an MBA in engineering from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and a Ph.D at York University in Toronto. She has worked for 25 years at an executive level in sales, marketing, and engineering and operations managenent.