Blog Post

How to Compare Data Center Sites Within a Given Metro

7 min read

Jeff August

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  • Jeff August, UpStack’s Chief Strategy Officer, provides his trusted method for comparing data center sites in the same market using the lessons he learned over his 22 year career sourcing colocation and network services for companies like Facebook, Dropbox, and Square.

  • In my previous post I discussed the strategic evaluation categories that I have found work across multiple types of data center site selection projects. But once you know those categories, how do you use them to make a good business decision? My answer is a simple three step process that includes site visits by at least two people, population of a Dynamic Comparison Matrix by those that conduct the visit, and finally a working session with all stakeholders, whether they visited the sites or not, in attendance to go over the results.

    As we discussed already, there are seven general categories that you can key on to compare sites. Those are

    1. Cost
    2. Connectivity
    3. Security
    4. Logistics
    5. Growth
    6. Performance
    7. Innovation 

    Now that we have those agreed upon we can set in motion a plan to gather data for each, compare and contrast sites and get to a shortlist for a final round of negotiations.

    Before we get to the first step in this plan we need to  gather actionable data on cost, availability, and services offered. UpStack’s platform is perfect for this – it can take in your requirements, build an RFQ that is shared with multiple vendors in multiple markets and show you a projected TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) across all sites. Additionally, our interface allows you to share pricing with other members of your team, limiting version control.  When gathering initial data, we recommend casting a wide net so that you can review solutions from as many providers as possible. Our consulting team can walk you through who to include in your initial ask based on the criteria above. Once you have the data in front of you, you can use it to narrow down the sites you would like to visit in person

    When narrowing the field down to a short list, I usually set the goal of having at least five options in whatever market I was investigating, so we will use that number as we walk through the process. Once you have seen what is available via the portal in the market you are investigating and narrowed down the broad field to five sites, it’s time to schedule site visits.

    I recommend that site visits include at least two team members. I have conducted site visits all by myself and with as many as five of my colleagues, but the best results require at least two people. For the fictional example I am about to run through I am going to assume three teammates are on the site visits.

    Site visits are generally occurring in places away from the company HQ, which means they require travel. One best practice is to have the team doing the evaluating fly in to the market the night before and start early the next day. You will need at least eight hours to visit five sites, in some markets you may need more than a day depending on travel time and the distance you have to drive to get from one site to the next.

    For an interesting read on how grueling but informative site visits can be check out this article from one of our customers, Backblaze.

    In a market like Ashburn, VA – with ample data center capacity in a tight cluster – it will take less than eight hours if you budget an hour per site. If you expand your search criteria to include sites in Northern Virginia but outside Ashburn, you will need to include travel to other cities in the surrounding area. I have been able to conduct site surveys in most metro areas all in one day but there could be markets where you may want to plan for two days of visits.

    It is best to make sure you set clear expectations upfront with each of the vendors you are visiting. A sample agenda for these meetings will look something like:

    • 10 minutes for introductions
    • 45 minutes of walking to specific areas of the site that you have particular questions about
    • 5 minutes of planning for next steps

    Remember, you control the agenda – don’t waste precious time covering topics you don’t need to review. Plus, you have already reviewed spec sheets via your dashboard in the UpStack Marketplace so you don’t need to sit in a conference room and go through a boiler-plate presentation. Our platform allows you to skip right to the good stuff!

    On the 45 minute walking tour you will want to see all of the critical infrastructure elements. Generators, chillers and the like may all seem like they are the same but I have personally encountered points of interest and concern in a data center by visiting the areas where these pieces of heavy machinery live. 

    You will want to see the shared cabinet environment as well as the specific place that the vendor is proposing your hardware will live. If you are undertaking site visits, we can assume that this is for something larger than a single cabinet. For this fictional example we will assume a 6 rack private cage so you will want the vendor to show you the specific place, or places, that they are proposing for your cage.

    As the tour moves through the facility, each of the evaluators should be taking notes of their own. These notes should be used to support an eventual rating on each strategic evaluation category we have already defined. Have you decided you are going to count the number of cameras you see as you walk through the facility? What criteria did you decide was best to understand how innovative a facility is? These notes are yours and yours alone, so make sure they make sense to you.

    When all of the tours are over it is time to move on to the next step, creating a Dynamic Comparison Matrix. For the purposes of this fictional example I am going to weight each category equally. There will be reasons that a company may want to give varied weights to one or more categories, that is easily achievable in this model as well. The idea is to give each site an objective score so that it is clear which site is the best and worth a final negotiation.

    In my method, each of the three team members that visited the site would score each site according to their own criteria. In order to force a decision, and assuming that we have five sites we are scoring, the best site in a given category will be given the score of “5.” The next best site is given a score of “4.” If any of the sites are equal in a given category they get an identical score. To force objectivity, the next best after those will be two points below both of them. So if there are two “5” rated sites in the Security category, the next site can score no higher than “3.”

  • Example of the Dynamic Comparison Matrix.

  • Lastly, when all the stakeholders are gathered, all of the scores are compiled and each of the team members that visited the sites explains their position. The goal of this meeting is to have a healthy debate and walk away knowing the team has made the best decision possible. While debate can sometimes become hostile I have found that a larger challenge is the opposite which manifests itself as groupthink.

    To avoid groupthink there should be a clear understanding that if the dynamic scoring results in an identical top choice for each of the team members, the last member to present their scores must automatically default to pushing their second choice to the top. Stakeholders should be given the opportunity to challenge the results but not to block a decision. The team should walk away from this meeting with one of two things:

    1. One possibility is that the team will have selected a clear winner and that the person responsible for closing the loop with the vendors can work on a final negotiating of pricing and contracts. 
    2. The other possibility is that the top two sites scored close enough that either will work and the vendors will be given an opportunity to provide best-and-final pricing before contracts are put in place. This is another area where UpStack’s platform comes in handy – previous quotes can be compared against new or alternate versions and against competing bids, all within your original project .

    In either event, the team should now feel confident that following this simple yet rigorous process has set them up to make the best possible decision for their business.

    For those who are about to venture out on their next site selection tour, feel free to drop me a line for any quick advice or last minute questions!

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