Are carrier-neutral data centres the ultimate solution?

July 26th, 2018, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

If the question “Are carrier-neutral data centres the ultimate solution?” was posed a decade ago, the answer would have been “not really” or, at best, “maybe”. In 2018 it is difficult to understand why one would want to ask the question. Vendor- or carrier-neutral data centres are becoming increasingly dominant. However, this does not mean that carrier-owned data centres no longer have a place in the data centre market. Jan Hnizdo, CFO of Teraco believes that there will always be a need for carrier-owned data centres to serve the smaller enterprise market, in particular.

Firstly, let us define what we mean by a vendor-neutral or carrier-neutral data centre. Teraco CEO Lex van Wyk defined vendor-neutral at the launch of the first vendor-neutral data centre in South Africa. He said, “Vendor neutrality means you can connect to any carrier or network operator, any service provider, outsource services to any IT services business, connect to and offer services to any other client within the data centre and connect to any other client through open and unrestricted interconnection policies.” This definition of a vendor-neutral data centre held true for the first few years, but today it is more complicated. Others, such as vendors of IT equipment and cloud service providers, also entered the data centre market offering, in many instances, telco-neutral services.

Fig. 1: Construction stage of the Riverfield Hyperscale data centre in Bredell which is the fourth carrier-, cloud- and vendor-neutral data centre facility built by Teraco. It has a technical deployment space of over 6000 m² and a municipal power supply of 24 MVA. It will be the largest commercial data centre ever built in Africa.

The unparalleled growth of the internet, along with the exponential growth of digital data and the emergence of the cloud, has resulted in a rapid increase in the number of data centres. Ten years ago the number of data centres in South Africa could be counted on one hand and were mostly carrier-specific.

There are some important reasons why the data centre business rapidly moved from carrier-specific to non-carrier, or vendor independent. Redundancy, lower pricing, flexibility and portability are some of the main reasons.

  • Redundancy: The need access to critical infrastructure 24/7. Whether it’s a customer facing website or an internal system, relying on only one carrier to connect to the internet has inherent risks. IT best practices generally mandate that a minimum of two carriers be used to connect critical systems to the internet just in case one fails.
  • Lower pricing: It is basic economics, competition drives down prices. There are opportunities to switch carriers for better pricing.
  • Flexibility: Each and every carrier’s network is unique. Fibre and cables cover different routes and the equipment can provide different benefits. Selecting a data centre with multiple carriers offers the advantage of routing and feature sets offered by competing carriers.
  • Portability: Moving servers into an outsourced data centre is a significant investment in time and resources. Once established in a data centre, it is unlikely to want to move. However, no matter how satisfied, problems with a carrier could force a company to switch. In a carrier-neutral data centre, there is no commitment to any one provider.

Will Scott, a business development manager in the data centre services unit of Colt (EU), believes that carrier neutrality is a buzzword. It’s often thrown around alongside colocation and connectivity and is one of many items that needs to be crossed off on the corporate checklist when choosing a data centre provider. “But if you work or have ever ventured in to the data centre environment, you’ll probably be aware that whether a data centre can be considered truly neutral is an area filled with contest. The problem is that everyone has their own definition of carrier neutrality. There’s a perception that a data centre provider can’t be carrier neutral if it’s owned by a carrier. By its very nature, the relationship will be biased, right? Wrong! As long as that data centre provider allows any customer to use any carrier within the data centre, then it is carrier neutral. It’s not just the definition of carrier neutrality that’s up for debate, it’s the number and diversity of carriers too”, Scott said.

Why is there so much focus on carrier neutral data centres? Jan Hnizdo says that the market is responding to a fast-changing world. “Today we expect services to always be available without interruption, which means the use of multiple carriers and back-up generators for the back-up generators in case the first back-up generators fail! This, however, does not mean that there is not a requirement for carrier-owned data centres owned and operated by telcos, ISPs and cloud providers. There are many smaller enterprises that do not have IT departments and prefer to subscribe to a one-stop service to handle all their communication requirements, data and cloud services.” Hnizdo describes it as a hybrid data centre world.

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