Choosing the Right Data Center for Disaster Recovery Planning
How to select the best data center for your business using nine key factors
Mark Noonan, Vice President of Sales, Data Foundry (Winter 2011)
Choosing a facility designed to securely house your company's computer systems, networking, and other technology components is a crucial decision for any business. Companies of all sizes depend on the stability and reliability of IT infrastructure to operate successfully. Even one moment of network disruption can wreak havoc on a company's revenue and customer relationships. Businesses need a robust and comprehensive disaster recovery plan to ensure that operations run smoothly in case of disaster. Data centers are an important component to any disaster recovery plan, serving to house core network and infrastructure operations and providing space for the people that run the organization.

Companies need a disaster recovery plan to limit the crippling effects of a disaster. Disasters can include human error or natural occurrences such as hurricanes, flooding, or earthquakes. Many large companies spend 2-4 percent of their dedicated IT budgets on disaster recovery planning. This investment helps avoid additional losses to the business associated with IT infrastructure failure. It is important to carefully assess the data center components involved in disaster recovery planning to ensure that time and money is well spent. Here are nine key elements to consider when choosing the right data center.

1. Location
A data center that offers an optimal environment to keep the facility running with minimal down time and low operating costs is a high priority. An optimal environment has a low risk of natural disasters, a favorable business climate, and a rich technology talent pool. Companies are shying away from coastal regions because of hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires, and from high-profile metro areas because of the threat of terrorism. The best cities for data centers are in the central and southwestern United States due to the lower incidences of natural disasters, according to a 2010 study by the Boyd Company.

Carrier-neutral network access is also important. Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, and Raleigh-Durham are the some of the most popular data center cities, as they are rich with fiber options. Other criteria to consider when selecting a data center location are the price and reliability of power in the area. Incentives, such as cheaper taxes and rates from local governments and utilities, also influence the data center site decision.

2. Reliability
A reliable infrastructure eliminates points of failure and employs total redundancy where necessary. The mechanical plant within a data center includes power, electrical, and cooling systems, which keep it operating smoothly 24/7/365. The mechanical and electrical systems should be designed with multiple levels of redundancy. For instance, data centers often have multiple generators to ensure backup power is available in case of a utility outage.

Building a data center that is fully redundant at every level can be cost-prohibitive, and some data center operators choose not to make this investment. Review the data center system design and the provider's track record on outages, availability, and service level history. The data center provider should describe in detail ongoing maintenance for any of its critical systems and standard procedures for correcting an issue.

3. Redundant Utilities
Data centers often have redundancy built into the primary power, water, and network utilities. Data centers should provide independent, reliable, scalable, and resilient power with diverse feeds entering the facility. Diverse feeds act as added insurance to keep operations running seamlessly if one feed is compromised.

Ideally, choose a data center that not only has diverse power feeds, but with feeds that originate from more than one substation. A data center should also have two separate water utility feeds. At the network level, data centers should be designed with dual entrances for all providers and carriers, which further increase reliability and uptime.

4. Network
Network availability and the number of carrier options are crucial factors as they relate to reliability and cost. Carrier-neutral facilities have multiple carrier options that allow for optimized traffic, high levels of network redundancy, and leverage in contract negotiations with a network provider. Competitive pricing is a benefit that a carrier-neutral data center can provide to its customers.

5. Security
There are many levels of security at a data center that can be implemented both inside and outside of the facility. A premium data center will incorporate multiple levels of security across both areas.

A facility with a strong outer layer of security can reduce the chance of vandalism or break-ins. The first line of defense is a barrier or fence, guarded access, and perimeter intrusion monitoring solutions. This solution, which may be integrated into the facility's access control and alarm monitoring system, can include video technology based on a virtual perimeter. Around-the-clock security at all entrances, including loading docks, provides increased protection from unauthorized access.

Internal security measures can include multiple layers of authentication to control access to the data center. Biometric options such as retina or palm scanners offer an elevated level of identification. Internal, closed-captioned video systems monitoring all entrances and key areas throughout the facility provide surveillance and archive footage of all activity. Data centers also implement features such as mantraps that consist of interlocking doors in which the first set of doors must close before the second set opens. Mantraps require measures such as pass codes, cards, or biometric scanners for further access.

Since the data center houses critical information and IT infrastructures, it is important to understand the full extent of the security measures taken at each level of the facility and campus.

6. Staff
A top-notch facility will have experienced and knowledgeable staff to help with any support issue that may arise. Yet half of all data centers in the U.S. are understaffed or under-skilled, according to studies such as the Symantec's 2010 State of the Data Center. Only consider a data center that has onsite support staff 24/7/365, not only during standard business hours. Data centers commonly offer "remote hands" service so customers can rely on the data center's personnel even when they are not physically there.

7. Corporate Ownership
The best facilities are owned and managed by a true data center operator, not a real estate company looking to flip the property. Verify that the data center owner is financially viable and has a long track record of operating all facets of the data center.

The data center owner's financial stability is very important. An unstable company may require frequent configuration changes or equipment moves to offset poor planning and organization. Each change, whether planned or unplanned, can be a major inconvenience and expose businesses to downtime. Find a provider that has built its business on the core competencies of a successful, financially strong data center.

8. Scalability
A highly scalable data center can support rapid growth of space, power, and bandwidth demands. The ideal data center will allow for fast, seamless growth, as well as the deployment of new services without requiring a major overhaul of infrastructure or disrupting customer operations.

Reconfiguring space or moving equipment can incur additional costs and increase room for error. When assessing a facility's scalability, consider your short- and long-term growth potential and review the provider's ability to accommodate these needs.

9. Creature Comforts
Since your employees are your company's most important asset, be mindful of the data center's creature comforts. In the event of a disaster, employees may be required to work long hours at the facility. Taking the time to evaluate what is available to your employees when choosing a data center will ensure that your staff is in a safe and accommodating environment.

Consider features like well-lit, ample parking and easy access to public transit options. Proximity to hotels, restaurants, retail centers, and recreational activities should also be evaluated.

Amenities within the data center are equally important. A full-featured break room or vending area can keep your staff comfortable, efficient, and as productive as possible. Showers are even available in some premium data centers.

A facility with a variety of amenities will ensure that staff needs are met and business operations continue remotely and independently of your company's home office location.

Final Evaluation
These nine factors can serve as a foundation for evaluating a data center that will best meet IT needs and provide a solid disaster recovery component. The weight of these elements will vary based on each company's unique business and IT infrastructure. Careful research, including input from key stakeholders in your organization, can help you determine your priorities. In the final stage of your data center selection, conduct onsite tours of the facilities that make your short-list with these priorities in mind.

With full consideration of these criteria, a management team can feel confident that the data center component of their disaster recovery plan can withstand any event that could threaten the business.