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Data Center Colocation – What You Need to Know About Customer and Provider Responsibilities

In this blog, we elaborate on data center colocation responsibilities from the provider and customer side so you're equipped next time you're racking servers.

data center colocation responsibilities
Matt Pinto

Jan 2, 2024

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Cloud computing is arguably the biggest thing the tech age has served up yet. Powered by the ability to connect remotely from anywhere and access shared data storage and compute, it’s a powerful solution with many excellent use cases. However, not all enterprise needs are a puzzle piece fit with commodity public cloud services.

If your enterprise needs revolve around edge computation, low latency, high-performance or finely tuned computation (think AI use cases), or are operating at such a scale that the public cloud is too costly (see the Dropbox story), using a data center colocation facility with your own hardware for storage and compute is likely a better option. While each data center will have nuanced differences about how their processes work, there is a general understanding of roles and responsibilities between provider and tenant regarded as universal in this model. In this blog, we will be elaborating on those, from both the data center and customer side, so you are empowered to make the best business decision for your data storage.

What is Data Center Colocation?

Data center colocation is the business practice of housing privately owned servers and networking equipment in a third-party data center. Businesses benefit from the infrastructure, security, and connectivity of a professional data center without having to build and maintain their own facility. In a colocation setup, both the customer (the business or organization colocating its equipment) and the provider (the data-center facility) have specific responsibilities, which we will be exploring below.

The Data Center Colocation Model: Power Concerns

At the core of any data center is the robust power feeds needed from the commercial power provider grid. Data centers consume insane amounts of power, and this is of course at the core of data center provider responsibilities. But relying on existing infrastructure to keep customers’ data safe, secure, and accessible isn’t enough. Robust and reliable data centers will also use a secondary power source, usually a generator, that will automatically take on the load if/when commercial power isn’t available.  

Prospective customers should ask whether the data center has a third tier of redundancy battery backup if power is unavailable. This is not always the case. If the data center is not providing battery backup service, it is recommended the customer procure a battery. It’s also common for customers to put a battery backup system in place even if the data center is providing one.

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC): The Data Center’s Hidden Needs

Running the kind of server power that comes with a data center isn’t easy. Even in a basic on-site, single-company server room, maintaining the ideal ambient temperature is a critical part of business operations. Devices are designed to operate in a strict temperature range, but powerful equipment in a small space can quickly push up those temperatures. Adequate ventilation and temperature-control solutions are a necessity, not a nice to have. No wonder these facilities consume so much power!

A quality data-center provider ensures that there are redundant HVAC systems in place to keep the temperatures at optimal levels for equipment operation and longevity. In turn, it is the customer’s responsibility to research the optimal temperature for the gear they’re installing and ensure it falls within the data center’s operating range.

In Case of Emergency: Fire Detection and Suppression 

No one likes to think of the worst-case scenario, but when you’re looking for a simple and secure data-center colocation process, what happens when things go wrong should be on your radar. You don’t have to be technically-capable to know that fire and your precious data are a recipe for disaster.

Classic sprinkler systems, however, are not a solution for data-storage facilities, causing as much damage to the precious bits and bytes it stores as the fire itself. Most data centers use gaseous agents rather than water. There are variations of the type of chemical or gas the data-center service provider uses, and there are some that have dry pipe-sprinkler systems in place, too.

As the customer, you must enquire about these emergency backup measures, and ensure you understand the fire suppression the data center has in place. Then, you need to ascertain what impact this system could have on the equipment you install. Typically, gaseous agents have little (if any) impact on hardware, whereas water has the potential to cause equipment to malfunction.

Day-to-Day Physical Security

Paired with these emergency measures comes day-to-day security. Physical security is a table-stakes offering for data center providers. We know cybersecurity is a rising concern in cloud environments, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore physical security risks. 

Data centers typically have a range of security elements like badge-only site access, man traps, patrolling guards, and locking cabinets or cages. Data centers typically require anyone who needs access to the data center to go through a credentialing appointment, and they provide identity badges to anyone authorized to enter. However, there are different levels of security, like ISO 27001 and SSAE 16. Data-center providers don’t all operate at the same level.

Depending on how mission-critical your data is, and the sensitivity of it, you need to choose a data center that meets those criteria. If your organization has compliance requirements, you need a data-center provider that offers that level of security. 

Network Connectivity: Ensuring a Smooth Workday

With those basics in place, it’s time to dig into your day-to-day relationship. Network connectivity is vital for data-center providers. The data center should find, entice, assist, and facilitate all network service providers in the area to build their networks into the data center. Having multiple providers within a data center is a benefit for data-center customers as it gives them the ability to leverage carrier diversity within their network. Not only does this make for broader, smarter failover options, but it helps ensure their customers can work with the carriers of choice for their needs.

As a customer, this means knowing who your preferred network providers are and whether they already interact with your data center. If not, it’s worth asking what the data-center provider can do to get your provider to build out within the data-center’s infrastructure. Regardless, it will typically be your responsibility to buy and provision network connectivity to your data center servers, while the data center provider will ensure adequate provider availability to make this easy for you.

Understanding the Network Operations Center (NOC) and Security Operations Center (SOC)

Circling back to matters of data security, there are two critical elements to understand. The NOC of the data-center provider is responsible for ensuring the data-center network and infrastructure are always monitored and any alerts or alarms are addressed timeously. The data center SOC, on the other hand, will ensure that the security posture of the data center is monitored from both physical and digital aspects. These typically run as basic in-house services but aren’t always expanded to the client side. Sometimes, data centers will offer this as an extended service to their tenants but expect to pay an additional fee for the privilege.

As a consumer, be aware of your data center’s monitoring capabilities and requirements. Monitoring the physical aspects of the data center should be included as part of the terms and conditions. However, some data centers will also monitor customer environments for network and security incidents. If a customer doesn’t have 24x7 IT staff but requires 24x7 monitoring, you’ll need to discuss this with the data center before you commit to a contract.

Smart Hands: Help When You Need It

Troubleshooting, or “Smart Hands”, varies significantly from one data center to another.  Some limit their offerings to minor troubleshooting with the customer’s IT support to address things like visual verification, inspection, rebooting, and power cycling. Others provide a full suite of on-site services, including equipment installation, removal, troubleshooting, cabling, upgrades, and patch management. Knowing what help is on offer is critical to selecting the right data center for your needs.

One of the biggest challenges concerning maintenance at data centers is the distance from your knowledgeable in-house IT staff. If you made the data-center selection to facilitate geographic diversity, then you likely won’t have any in-house IT staff close by to respond to incidents. Knowing what the data center’s Smart Hands capabilities are is an important component of finding the perfect partnership.  

Cabling: Your Basic Connectivity Framework

Much as the world wishes it was fully wireless, we’re still a long way from that becoming a business reality. At some point in your data-storage journey, you’re going to need to run cabling. Data centers typically do not allow customers to run cables out of their environment.  If a cable must be run within the data center, most commonly from the network service provider’s demarcation point or meet-me-room and the customers’ environment (cage or cabinet), then the data center will run this cabling on your behalf. It’s easy to understand why a mass service provider would want to keep that infrastructure provision in-house to avoid liability issues and ensure nothing you do affects their other customers. However, some data centers include cabling as standard while others will bill monthly for this.  

You can be a smart and proactive customer by pre-calculating how many cables you expect to run out of your environment and factoring this into your budget.

In Summary: Customer Responsibilities

Now you have a better understanding of the day-to-day needs of working with data center colocation, let’s summarize what you will need.

  • Equipment and Configuration: You are responsible for providing your servers, networking equipment, and any other hardware you wish to colocate. You will be responsible for configuring and managing your equipment, including installing and updating software. Alternatively, ensure the data center can provide these services.

  • Security: You will be responsible for the security of your equipment and data. This includes implementing access controls, firewalls, and other security measures to protect against unauthorized access. The data center will cover physical security. Some data-center providers will offer non-physical security services, typically at an extra cost, so be sure to get clarity on this.

  • Compliance: You must ensure that your operations within the colocation facility comply with any relevant industry regulations and standards. This may include data protection regulations, such as GDPR, or industry-specific compliance requirements.

  • Connectivity: You are responsible for managing your network connectivity. This includes establishing and maintaining connections to the internet and any private networks you need. Remember that running cables must be coordinated with the data-center provider, as you cannot do this without their input and approval.

  • Monitoring and Management: You will also be responsible for monitoring the performance of your equipment and addressing any issues that may arise. This includes responding to alerts, troubleshooting, and performing necessary maintenance. If this isn’t right for you, usually due to geographic location, then look for a data-center provider that offers Smart Hands services.  

  • Power and Cooling: Depending on the colocation agreement, you may be responsible for managing and monitoring power usage and cooling for your equipment. This may involve understanding and adhering to the data center’s power-usage limitations. However, this isn’t universal, and should always be clarified with the data-center provider. 

If your enterprise is considering a move into a data-center environment, several other minor considerations will be part of the decision-making process. Luckily, you don’t have to work this out alone. There are tools available to help you with this procurement process – like the Lightyear Telecom Operating System

The Lightyear platform will help boost transparency at every step, ensuring you match with the best data-center provider for your needs. Lightyear will help you identify potential data- center sites in the geographic area you are considering, provide insight into which providers are available, and share implementation tracking information.

Want to learn more about how Lightyear can help you?

Let us show you the product and discuss specifics on how it might be helpful.

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