As many of you know - or at least those who follow my blog(s) know - I am building a data center company. The most important part of a data center is where you put followed closely by how you get to it and how others get to it - both physically and logically. The one thing I have experienced more of this year than in years past is how overlooked or non-sensical the site selction process is for people.
When I look at data center site selection I look at several variables - seismic, flood, environmental, natural disaster stuff, how close networks are, if they are not in the building, access to clean, reliable electricity sources, the talent pool, and overall market - is it a good place to do business. It is a little different for customers in that many times they choose a market, search available space and take what's ready to go in their time frame and trust that the facility has made a lot of the decisions for them in selecting where to put their facility. Commercial Real Estate Brokers are often engaged to help in this process. The brokers are also involved in selling data centers and buildings that could become data centers to people like me.
So you can imagine the head scratching (and some giggling) I do when I get calls and emails from people inside and outside the data center business pitching me on their 'prime data center' sites and they have NO IDEA what they are talking about. I will give you some of the more interesting sites I personally have been to and point out things that while obvious to me, were clearly overlooked.
I spent a day in Chicago in the early summer driving around and looking at sites with a good friend of mine in the design/build part of the business. We went by Microsoft's container site and that was pretty cool, and then he brings me to a site that had a banner on the front of it announcing it was going to be the next data center facility for Ascent Corporation, the guys who helped build the Microsoft site. Turning down the access road, I saw several cones and saw horses in the major road leading to the turn off and they were srrounded in a couple of inches of standing water and it looked there was a water main break the night before and I asked my tour guide if it was in fact a water main break and how it effected the Microsoft building. His response was 'no water main break, just 2 days of rain off an on'. Wow, three days after the last rain and water was still leeeching out of the ground and creating hazardous conditions on the only way to get to the facility. As we drive down the puddle filled secondary road, there is a large rail yard that had to have 10 tracks across it. There were few cars on the tracks, but it looked like it could support hundreds of them if needed. I popped the question 'What is the story with the railroad tracks?'. I was thinking it was an abandoned switching yard from the hey day of the Chicago railroads. The response was 'Oh that's an active switching yard that has been used for 50 years to switch up cars headed downtown', I replied 'Really? What is in the cars that go through here?'. My guide told me there is 'lots of stuff that goes through the year as it is a major switching point for the rail system'. Hmmm. Interesting.
We finally reach the building at the end of the street and it's tired, but workable. As I have learned, a lot of stuff is workable if you have a lot of money behind you. Then I look at the parking lot that abuts the track bed. The crushed stones were coming through the chain link fence and the closest track was maybe 20 feet from the edge of the parking lot. The parking lot had water in 60% of it and it looked like Lightning McQueen had dragged the statue of Stanley around it for a while. My guide says 'So this is the facility, what do you think? I heard they got a good deal on it.'. Well good deal or not they paid too much. I responded 'You really want to know what I think based on what I have seen so far?', he replies, 'yeah, I do'.
I launch into my assessment: This would be the last place I would put a data center in Chicago. Why?
- The roads get washed out after heavy rains making the site inaccesible unless by canoe.
- My employees couldn't get out to take care of their families
- There is a very active rail yard for a half mile before the property with no idea of what is in the cars - or what has been in the cars the past 50+ years.
- The site could be on a Superfund list from a spill that happened back before OSHA or the EPA was around to investigate such things
- The site could land on a Superfund site of one of the very rusty tanker cars decides to leak toluoene, or some other banned substance
- There could be an air quality emergency if one of the said tanks bursts emitting chlorine gas instead of milk
- The chain link fence, while adequate to keep deer out of the yard, would not keep taggers from spray painting the building or other folks who had no business being there
He interrupted me and said 'Yeah, I didn't think it was a great site either'. Nuff said. However I have heard that Ascent is moving forward with development plans and I would love to see how their anchor tenant will justify to their board why putting mission critical assets in a site like this is lowering risk.
Another one of my favorite areas to point out the lack of decision making intelligence gathering, is Ashburn Virginia. Yes it is one of the hottest data center markets in the US, great relaible power, MAE East is there so you have hundreds of network connections to tap, and the talent pool is deep. Very popular site for a lot of companies who operate data centers and who lease space from the data center operators there. It made sense to me too, until the first time I flew into Dulles instead of National airport.
I was on a Jet Blue flight from Boston, and I had a window seat on the right side of the plane. On final approach I look out the window to look at the beautiful countryside. As we get closer to touchdown, we fly RIGHT over the Dupont Fabros and Digital Realty Trust data center cluster. I was shocked. Why in the hell would anyone put a data center cluster in the flight path of a busy airport? That couldn't be right. So I got my rental car and drove out there. I parked on the road by Digital Realty Trust's campus and watched the sky. Every 90-120 seconds there was an airplane overhead. All different kinds - 737, cargo planes, regional jets all flying over the densest interconnection point in The Eastern United States. Big WTF moment.
Why tell you this? Because it shows in vivid in your face detail that site selection - even when validated by companies who run data centers for a living -is important and what would appear to be a good decision, isn't necessarily a good decision. It seems as if people are more concerned about how long it will take to get to a site than how far away from bad things it is. When you base a major decision like a data center site on how easy it is to get a sandwich for lunch vs. whether or not you will be physically able to get to or away from your facility, you (and your real estate people) are not doing yourself ANY favors and putting you at greater risk not less risk.
If you are looking for data center space, before you book your next tour do yourself a favor and pay attention to the overlooked stuff - roads to and from, the surrounding area around the facility, in the air, manhole covers, and think like your worst nightmare. If someone ships a box of Anthrax to downtown Dallas, how many people need to evacuate and can the roads handle it? If someone puts a device in a cargo plane bound for Dulles and is parked where I was with the cell phone trigger, is that an acceptable risk?
If you want help or want a site selection guide - email me - firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a free copy of my site selection document. I will save you time and money before you even leave your office.