Terrorism, floods and the DIY data centre

Summary:Getting the right IT centre for HSBC's large and expanding business led the financial-services giant to develop its own custom-designed facility

"Canary Wharf has to be one of the biggest terrorist targets in Western Europe." That statement alone, from HSBC's head of data-centre services, Roy Adorni, goes along way to explain why the company is currently spending millions of pounds building a new data centre away from London's financial landmark.

The company currently has a significant data centre in its Canary Wharf headquarters in London's Docklands, as well as a back-up site "a bit up the river [Thames]", according to Adorni. But on top of the terrorist threat, water is another potential source of problems, according to global-warming predictions. "The fact the current data centres are in the London flood plain, we find disturbing. Given that and the relative age of the other site, it was deemed too risky operationally to have two important data centres in Central London. A new site was needed," he says.

HSBC is not alone when it comes to problems siting its data centres. Financial services organisations, which have historically had their trading and operating centres in major conurbations such New York, Frankfurt and London, are under real pressure when it comes to positioning these key IT resources. Rents of £150 per square-foot per annum are far from unusual in the kind of prime City of London locations.

Short of turfing employees out of the trading floors, some companies are facing real problems modernising their data-centre environments. Co-location is one alternative to the expense and disruption of building a new custom-built centre, but a downsides is that using a managed provider often means compromising on space and functionality tailored to the exact needs of the business.

HSBC decided that cost was preferable to compromise, and has broken ground on a new facility (see below for an artist's impression of what the finished site will look like), which is expected to come online in 2008/early 2009. The bank is cagey about the physical dimensions and performance characteristics of its new facility, and is similarly tight-lipped about the location of the site, only saying it is in "suburban London". But given that the site is intended to shield the bank from threats including terrorism, such reticence is hardly surprising.

"This site has been specially designed in the most robust fashion and will feature many special ways to handle a range of threats, including adverse weather," says Adorni.

HSBC has contracted a specialist firm in the somewhat niche market of data-centre construction, called Digital Realty Trust. Digital Realty claims it will build and operate sites precisely to the organisation's specifications. Part of its service to companies such as HSBC is to act as a broker for all the support infrastructure a data centre needs: for example, getting the rights to the land, helping design the site for the client's needs, or securing agreements from local power companies that sufficient juice will get laid on — not always a given, even in a major city such as London.

The company does the majority of this business overseas. It says the HSBC deal is the first such project it has begun in London, although its client list includes BT and "Global 500" firms such as IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Allied Irish Bank Amazon and Yahoo.

So why is HSBC doing this, as opposed to, say, extending a co-location agreement? Adorni explains that a major impetus behind his role is to deal with a range of changing data-centre operating conditions. "Technology is changing with things like blades, which also bring on new questions around power, cooling and environmental impact. Then there is the fact many data centres are in the old head-office buildings with the associated cost of rent on that space."

Co-location is an option for smaller companies, but HSBC's IT requirements are on another scale. "Co-location is fine for smaller organisations — if you have, say, a 10,000 square foot computer room that you won't probably grow out of, sure. But we wanted state-of the-art on our terms, so it makes more sense to do it yourself." And HSBC didn't go it completely alone, admits Adorni — it sought third-party expertise. "We are not in the real-estate business", he points out, "and don't want to be".

HSBC doesn't want to be in the electricity supply business either, it seems. The banking giant had its eye on a perfectly acceptable site until the power company confirmed...

HSBC data centre

An artist's impression of the new HSBC data centre

Topics: Tech Industry

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