Special report: Data center & cloud

We examine which markets in Asia are emerging as the next wave of datacenter hotspots, and identify key design factors that go into building efficient, sustainable data centers.

Malaysia, India next big data center hotspots

As costs of building and operating data centers in Asia increase in traditional hotspots such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, other countries such as Malaysia and India have emerged as alternative sites for their improving infrastructure and lower costs.

Mayank Kapoor, industry analyst of ICT practice at Frost & Sullivan, said new contenders have arrived on the horizon to offer competition to current favorites such as Hong Kong and Singapore because of the rapid increase in costs in these markets.

Malaysia and India have been highlighted as the main contenders in the next wave of emerging hotspots, with their attractions including lower costs, strong growth in domestic demand, and an improving ICT infrastructure, Kapoor added.

Saravanan Krishnan, director of platforms and solutions business for Asia-Pacific at Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), added Malaysia's stock is rising because it has comparable infrastructure in its cities such as Kuala Lumpur, compared to Singapore and Hong Kong.

The Malaysian government has also been very supportive of welcoming business into the country, offering tax benefits for companies looking to set up operations there, Krishnan stated. Its focus on green initiatives is another benefit for datacenter operators keen on entering the market, he added.

India, too, has positioned itself as a direct challenger due to its large pool of skilled workers for the datacenter industry, as well as efforts to improve its infrastructure and reduce cost of business, the HDS executive noted.

Checklist when picking site
Chin Jun-Fwu, research manager of virtualization and data center at IDC Asia-Pacific, pointed out enterprises should consider datacenter costs in terms of building and operating the facility. With this in mind, it is easier to weigh the pros and cons of choosing one's datacenter site, Chin added.

Vietnam, for example, is one Asian market companies can quite easily obtain a good piece of land to build their data centers. It also has one of the lowest rental costs in the region, he told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

However, bandwidth fees--which would fall under operating costs--is a "deal-breaker" for many companies as it is among the highest and, on average, about six times the price listed by more matured markets, the analyst noted.

Kris Kumar, senior vice president and regional head of Asia-Pacific at Digital Realty Trust, said beyond the costs of land and operations, other factors also come into play when picking one's datacenter site. These include having a politically and geographically stable environment, as well as strong, robust bandwidth connectivity to connect with other data centers, Kumar pointed out.

These are reasons why places such as Singapore and Hong Kong, despite being land-scarce destinations with high rentals and operating costs, continue to attract companies to base their datacenter facilities there, he said.

Conversely, places such as China, which has the potential to be a strong datacenter market with its large human capital and cheap, available land, remain secondary sites due to uncertain regulatory regimes, he explained.

Kumar's views were echoed by Mark Quigley, director of international operations at Softlayer Technologies, a cloud computing and managed hosting service provider which launched its Singapore data center last September.

He said the company's rationale for situating its data center in the city-state was "simple": proximity to customers. This aspect is crucial to driving innovation and improving end-user experience, Quigley explained.

Singapore is also an economic and technology hub, home to 10 percent of Forbes Global 500 companies, and a business-friendly environment that offers "favorable" tax laws, he stated.

HDS' Krishnan summed it up, saying: "These countries, with their established social infrastructure, strong ICT infrastructure, and existing communities of local, regional, and international businesses, have managed to couple these benefits with strong government support and incentives, creating a winning recipe for success."

Green data centers gaining traction

Cloud computing has been touted as way for companies to become more cost efficient by making it easier to scale resources.

The benefits include access to software and hardware, on a pay as you use basis. However, observers note that small and midsize businesses (SMBs) should watch out for hidden costs--both tangible and intangible.

With rising energy prices and increasing public sensitivity to environmental issues, there is more pressure on data centers to adopt more sustainable technologies.

Data centers are energy-intensive facilities, with energy consumption contributing to half of their operating expenses.

One data center operator that has implemented eco-friendly features is Equinix, which operates in 13 countries around the world and has two data centers in Singapore.

Some green features that Equinix has implemented include energy-efficient LED lights and fan systems; motion sensors to reduce heat and electricity consumption; a cold aisle containment infrastructure to make cooling more efficient; and the use of recycled water for cooling purposes.

The company's energy-efficient practices have helped it to save 30 percent in electricity costs, with some areas achieving breakeven on investments in as fast as 18 months, said Clement Goh, managing director for South Asia at Equinix.

He added there has been growing interest from customers over the past two years in environmentally-friendly features, possibly because of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas which have been growing in importance.

"Two years ago, there was nobody asking about green features; now over the past 12 months, at least 30 percent ask if we have green features at our data center," Goh said.

The managing director added it will be more inclined to build its future data centers from scratch instead of leasing the facility as this would allow the company to better integrate eco-friendly features into the physical design.


4 building blocks to efficient, sustainable data centers 

Companies exploring the idea of building their own data center will need to factor in considerations such as the land they are building on, the size of the facility, and cabling design, among others, in order to bring down the cost of their investments and ensure the sustainability of the facility, say industry insiders.

According to Bernie Trudel, cloud CTO at Cisco Systems Asia-Pacific, traditional data centers used to be uniform, homogeneous, and monolithic but these days, these facilities need to be modular, flexible, and agile in order to support companies' business needs.

Edwinder Singh, practice head for professional services, data center solutions at Dimension Data Asia-Pacific, added the common approach of building a data center by putting up four walls and providing power and cooling to a set of equipment load will no longer work as this is not an efficient method.

For modern data centers, most of which has an average lifespan of 10 years, companies will need to now take into consideration sustainability features in order to maximize their fixed investments, said Saravanan Krishnan, director of platforms and solutions business for Asia-Pacific at Hitachi Data Systems. It is important for businesses to look to technology and architecture design to help data centers reduce power consumption, cooling, and floor space, noted Alvin Goh, Asean senior manager of system engineering and professional services at NetApp.

With these in mind, these executives shared four important design considerations companies will need to mull over when building their data centers.

Location, location, location
John Mansfield, vice president for operations and engineering at Equinix Asia-Pacific, said preliminary considerations for the setting up of a data center would revolve around ensuring the facility has ample supply of electrical power, Internet connectivity, and basic land space.

Additionally, the building should not be located near high-risk installations such as airports, oil or gas storage plants, and should be protected against natural disasters common in the country such as floods or earthquakes, Mansfield pointed out.

Krishnan echoed the Equinix executive's observations, saying that data centers should ideally be located in "green zones", which offer proper land space, infrastructure, water, and a back-up power grid.

Companies should also incorporate local and international standards during the design and site considerations process, suggested Singh. In Singapore, these would include the BCA Green Mark awarded by the Building & Constructing Authority (BCA) and in the United States it would be the while international ones are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

"Not every aspect may be applied due to local physical constraints, but it is a good approach to start with rather than implementing a fix-it solution later," he said.

Prepare for future growth
Singh said provisioning for additional compute resources across a data center's lifespan is another consideration factor. While rack space is fixed once the facility is built, there needs to be flexibility in terms of upgrading existing technologies with more advanced ones.

With that, power and cooling pressures come into play. "Thus, it is important to ensure that the scalability from a power and cooling per square foot is thought out and planned during the site selection process and also at the design phase," Singh stressed.

Wired for flexibility
In terms of cabling, Singh said datacenter designers will always go with the most cost-effective model to ensure business viability. Since fiber wires can be substantially more costly than copper, companies can start with copper in their initial operations but subsequently upgrade these with fiber later without having to rip and replace the entire datacenter environment, he suggested.
Companies should also consider structured cabling systems that are modular and flexible, the executive said. While this might cost "a slight premium" compared to the traditional approach of patch paneling, the savings will come when the company decides to upgrade to fiber, he added.

Cisco's Trudel added that the industry standard for cabling system design--TIA 942--recommends copper while multi-mode optical fiber and single-mode fiber are used depending on bandwidth and distance requirements.

"In our experience, it is good to use all three. Single mode is expensive to terminate but is futureproof for high bandwidth and long distances," he said. For this type of cable, Trudel recommends customers to run it from each rack to a central distribution point but only terminate the runs that are required.

Multi-mode fiber will be the datacenter interconnect cable of choice, he noted, adding that this type of fiber is less expensive than single-mode.

Switched on, still cool
Power and cooling are two other aspects that make up a substantial operations cost for any data center, Krishnan pointed out. To ensure efficiency is achieved in these areas, companies will need to look at its data center's features and functionalities and procure the right range of technologies, he said. These technologies could include hot and cold aisles, water-cooled racks, and smaller disk drives which require less power to drive down high operating costs, the HDS executive added.

The increasing emphasis for green data centers has also resulted in increasing use of efficient power technology and cooling air flow design among operators, which is something companies should seriously look into. "These include using cold air from the external environment, minimizing power loss at various distribution and transformation points, using smaller cables that are more power efficient, airflow design within racks, between racks and between rows of racks," Trudel said.

Policies, not policing, to address shadow IT influx

Employees using consumer cloud services to aid them in their work have their benefits, so companies should not clamp down on these practices. But to balance other concerns such as security and compliance, they should have holistic, granular policies in place to guide the use of such services, say industry watchers.

Song Chuang, research director at Gartner, said workers have moved to an era when the tools for their jobs are not necessarily provided by the employer anymore but by online service providers offering anything from Web-based e-mail systems to storage.

"First we had people wanting to use their own computers, then mobile devices at work. Now, we're at a point where people also want to bring or use their own apps," Chuang said, adding that use of these apps tends to provide benefits in terms of staff productivity.

Steven Wallage, managing director at Broadgroup Consulting, agreed that consumer-grade online services can be a boon to employee productivity although it's been said that workers sometimes use these apps for personal, rather than business, reasons.

That said, shadow IT, or technology used by employees that were not pre-approved by the IT department, bring varying levels of security and performance issues and makes it a real challenge for companies to manage IT and ensure compliance of their backend systems and data, Wallage noted.

Even if there were some unexpected savings from the lowered costs of internal datacenter maintenance or storage hardware due to the increased use of online storage services, the managing director said such pros would be outweighed by the security and management concerns.

IT chiefs ZDNet Asia spoke to concurred with both analysts. Foong Sew Bun, CTO and distinguished engineer at IBM Asean, said such consumer-grade services have their usefulness but pose challenges in security as well as integration with the enterprise's overall IT environment.

Tan Hoon Chiang, CIO of the National Institute of Education in Singapore, pointed out that the concept of cloud computing does "positively modify" the technological landscape for improvement and innovation. But when consumer cloud services are used for work, IT units have to assess whether data security and application performance are at risk while ensuring all systems supporting the company's core business functions run normally, he added.

To this, Gartner analyst Chuang said: "As it was with bring-your-own-device (BYOD), [consumer cloud] is both a boon and bane. Enterprises want to gain the productivity as well as manage the risk and support overload."

Craft out clearly defined policies
Nick Kirkland, CEO of CIO Connect, said when employees turn to consumer IT services of their choosing such as online storage service Dropbox, it is a "symptom" that the organization's IT department had failed to meet the needs of the business.

As such, CIOs need to ensure they are not controlling or restricting access for the wrong reasons based on past practices at the expense of authorizing new technologies to advance the business needs, Kirkland urged. After all, consumer IT is a "tide that cannot be stopped" and IT chiefs can either go with the flow or be pushed out of the way, he added.

So, the sensible approach for decision-makers would be to help the company find a way to allow employees to continue using consumer-grade IT services where it benefits the business, he suggested.

At the same time, they would need to develop a strategy to deal with governance concerns, Kirkland said. Aspects to consider include helping the business cope and educate users in best practice procedures when using unauthorized services, and get them to understand the value and need for secure management of corporate data, he added.

Foong said consumer cloud adoption should no longer be viewed as a separate, individual initiative but a continuum of delivery options available to businesses. With or without the IT department's blessings, end-users are purchasing compute capacity at their convenience. So to fully benefit from this trend, CIOs have to balance the mix of on-premise, cloud, and other deployment options in the company to meet their needs, the IBMer noted.

Essentially, the aim is to encourage and support collaboration and innovation across organizational boundaries without jeopardizing security, integrity, resiliency, and interoperability, he explained.

"Without a holistic approach and proper policy, it's all too likely that multiple groups in an organization will make independent decisions to deploy services in clouds that are disconnected or cannot interact seamlessly with traditional IT environments," Foong said.

Gartner's Chuang advised companies to develop policies that have more granular clarification as to which consumer-grade services are permitted, what instances can they be used, and what security steps should be practiced when using these products.

For a start, companies can identify the services that are heavily used by staff currently and determine the severity of the impact should these services lead to security breaches. From there, IT chiefs can then better assess the risk and develop management tools to optimize the use of these cloud-based products, the analyst added.

Skilled workers key to datacenter growth, advantage

Singapore-based hosting and managed services operator 1-Net first started its operations in 1997 and, over the span of more than a decade, the wholly-owned subsidiary of local media company MediaCorp has grown to become one of the main Internet data center operator in the region.

As a marker for development, its data center has correspondingly grown from a few thousand square feet in land area to the 100,000-square-feet facility it is today as it scales to meet the needs of its customers.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, the company's managing director Yow Tau Keon revealed that the planning and design of the initial data center took over a year as its team looked around to find a suitable location and decide what features and equipment needed to be included in the facility. This is so that its systems would be resilient, secure, and reliable, he explained.

"Our data center is designed in such a way that our infrastructure, equipment, and system maintenance checks can be carried out without causing interruptions to business-critical systems and operations," Yow added.

Its architects had also played a crucial role in providing the expertise to complement, expand, and complete its virtualized infrastructure design as the company moved from being just a datacenter host to a managed services provider, he noted. They helped in implementing floor loading, suitable power and cooling designs, as well as ensuring a strong IT security framework to protect customer data, he said.

These efforts led to 1-Net becoming the first datacenter company in Singapore to achieve the Business Continuity Management certification for BS25999 (International Standard) and SS540 (Singapore Standard).

The company declined to share more regarding the specifications, design and power and utilities consumption as it regards such information as a competitive advantage.

Recruiting specialized manpower a challenge
But just as he recognized the importance of its datacenter specialists in helping grow and establish 1-Net's presence in the region, Yow admitted recruiting the necessary skilled workers to operate the facility is proving to be a challenge.

From managing the datacenter, including its network, support, and service delivery, to the corporate aspects of the business in terms of sales and marketing, product and business development, and management, these are all areas that need employees with the right skillsets, he noted.

However, it is difficult to find experienced workers that match up to the required skills, which means hired workers may need to eventually go for additional training and certifications, the managing director said.

The skills shortage was highlighted last year, when Singapore Polytechnic unveiled a new data center to equip students with the latest skills in cloud computing. It hoped that by doing so, it can alleviate the shortage of skilled datacenter professionals in the country.

Getting workers equipped, and the corresponding salary hike they will command with extra certification, also means extra costs to the company, he added. And keeping costs low while optimizing its datacenter investments is another challenge highlighted. This is especially so given the bleak economic climate, particularly in Europe, at the moment, Yow said.

On the business side, the executive shared that by moving into areas such as managed services, 1-Net is increasingly seeing demand from customers in different markets and sectors for customized offerings, and this means more time and effort needed on their end.

For instance, banks and financial institutions may have different datacenter requirements and considerations compared to the manufacturing sector, so their services will have to be tailored to respective business needs, he explained.

The company will continue to forge ahead with offering cloud-based services though, noting the benefits these bring to companies. "Cloud has offered the ability to respond quickly to users' application needs in a resource-sharing approach, making it possible to satisfy demand for flexible computing resources on a pooled basis to derive cost savings when there is sufficient number of users and demand for it," the executive said.

As such, 1-Net will be launching its infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) product to help application service providers offload their data storage requirements to third-party operators, he added.

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