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Data centers: Blowing smoke and raising red flags

Last week in Orlando, I spoke at the well-attended BICSI Conference. While I was there, I also wanted to visit one of PEAK 10's data centers to get a first-hand view of its services.

Last year, I wrote about PEAK 10 after doing some online research, and I figured I would have a chance to go see its facilities in person and write another article because data centers have become an issue.

For several reasons, data centers have become very important in the last couple of years. First, most companies have aging data centers that should be upgraded, if not totally replaced, to handle the new equipment that requires more power and heat dissipation.

Second, with new compliance issues required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act as well as HIPAA, data centers and the information they store must comply with the new regulations and requirements.

Third, with many organizations that have pushed back budgets for IT, they are in a position to either make some big capital expenditures or seek out third-party firms, like PEAK 10, to address this issue.
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I arranged a meeting with PEAK 10's Tampa office to interview Deborah Curtis, a vice president, before I left for Orlando. The meeting was scheduled for 3 p.m. on Tuesday, and I was looking forward to the discussion and to seeing the data center.

On the Monday before the meeting, I received a call from their PR Firm, Clear Image, that the interview was canceled. I spoke to their account manager, David Menzies, and he said that they were all busy and could not grant a face-to-face interview. I thought that was odd, as most companies want to show off their data centers and brag about what services they have. Besides, I told him that I had already spoken to one of PEAK 10's vice presidents and she arranged the interview for Tuesday.

At best, he said maybe he could get me a phone interview later, but in his words “they do not want anyone walking through their data centers because of client confidentiality.” Hmmm… red flag. They openly list clients on their website, so I started becoming skeptical, but remained patient.

Whoever walked through a data center and saw client names listed on every data rack and all cable trays? Some industry veterans had a good laugh when I told them that one. Data centers are very nondescript and customer names are not painted on the wall. Their PR person was blowing smoke.

Red flag.

Due diligence before contract

With the unexpected cancellation, I reset the phone interview for this week on Tuesday at 8 a.m. central time, giving him a full week to get someone I could talk to. It was disappointing, as I was right there to get a face-to-face interview as well as see their facilities firsthand.

At 8:05 a.m. Tuesday, there was still no call. I called their PR person, David, who apologized but gave another excuse that everyone was busy, but if I would e-mail the questions, they could get around to answering them.

Red flags went up again.

He should have called me if he could not get someone for the time he agreed to. I gave him until 9:30 a.m. to get someone I could talk to, figuring I wasted enough time with him.

Well, 9:30 a.m. came and went with not even a return call. Great job of professionalism and not a good reflection on PEAK 10, since they trust that this firm is helping them “handle the media.”

It seemed very odd that no one was available after a week's notice and their PR person was overly guarded in getting questions answered.

More smoke and more red flags.

He seemed nervous about a biased interview, which I did not understand. I even read him my questions so that he did not think there were any pointed questions. The questions were general in nature:

• What are customers looking for today in services? Speeds? Security? Storage capabilities?

• What are some of the new concerns of companies in general?

• How important is being close to a fiber optic infrastructure?

• Has the emergence of Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA compliance changed your offerings?

• Do you see any municipal support for your business? (For example, incentives to locate within a specific area).

• As for hardware and facilities, what do you believe are the most important capabilities to your customers?

As you can tell, there are no hardball questions. His extreme cautiousness sent up numerous red flags not only to me, but to other industry veterans who all said it was odd that Peak 10 did not want anyone walking through its data center. And what about PR people asking for questions in writing before anyone would answer them? Get real.

If this is how they filter interviews about PEAK 10, I would not trust anything I read. What questions were “submitted” that have not been answered?

If you are going to use any third-party data center for an alternate back-up site for your mission critical applications, you better have some tough questions to ask and also make sure you exercise due diligence before turning over your mission critical applications.

When PR blows too much smoke, there must be a fire

I went from being very positive about PEAK 10 - based on what I read online - to being very skeptical based on how I was “handled” by their PR person.

Red flags everywhere: Did they just have some problems with their data centers? Are they selling things they don't really have at each facility? Why are they using a PR firm to act as a buffer for a simple interview? Are they trying to quietly handle a crisis? All these questions started popping up in my mind, as well as from those that deal with data centers as both suppliers and customers.

I was referred to their website for a compilation of their customers and services. I guess their PR firm thinks that someone is just going to buy off on what is on a web page.

The PR firm's hesitation for a simple interview still baffles me. Note to every PR firm: Doing your job means getting good press for your client. Creating some mystical fog and smoke gets your client into a vortex of skepticism and doubt.

I cannot count the number of organizations, when visiting their facility, that want to walk you through their “showcase” data center - whether it be in a Fortune 100 company, a university, a 911 Center, or even a small company that is proud of what it put together.

As for PEAK 10…

Is Peak 10 really Peak 2.75?

I wish I had come up with this dazzling and skeptical question, but it has to be credited to another long-time industry authority and smoke-signal reader, Frank Bisbee. He questioned whether or not they really have everything they say they have, or whether they have all the services in one location with the other locations having just a portion of their overall capabilities.

Do they have full connectivity to every data center, or do certain ones only have a tail circuit from a larger pipe? I cannot answer that either way because I did not see what they had in their facility. But based on their guarded PR person, more red flags unfurled here than at the Kremlin.

Here are some issues to look for when you do walk through any facility. I learned these at the BICSI Conference during one of the presentations by Chatsworth, and by talking to other data center industry experts:

• Do they have cabinet-mounted fans on the server cabinets? Did you know that this does no good in cooling or dissipating hot air? In fact, it contributes hot spots in the room.

• Do they have a cool aisle and a hot aisle? Equipment should be arranged so that you have all of the heat in one aisle and a cool aisle in the next.

• Are all wall and floor penetrations fire-stopped? If they leave these areas open, chances are they have used shortcuts in other areas of the facility.

Ask Dr. D. Bunk at Chatsworth for more data center cooling tips. There are some great myths that he blows away on data centers.

Bottom line on all data centers: If you cannot walk through facilities and take a good look at what they are trying to sell you, walk away. When PR blows too much smoke, there must be a fire somewhere.

CARLINI-ISM: Executives that cannot directly handle questions about their business should not be executives.

Copyright 2007 - James Carlini

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James Carlini is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, and is president of Carlini & Associates. He can be reached at james.carlini@sbcglobal.net or 773-370-1888. Check out his blog at http://www.carliniscomments.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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