Step Into His Cage

Sprint's Director of Internet Centers explains the nuts and bolts of data-center construction.

Data centers are a home-improvement aficionados dream. More power, faster fiber, megawatts, gigabits, and hundreds of thousands of square footage filled with electrical toys and stuff requiring the use of screwdrivers would make even Bob Vila drool.

Data-center construction specialists say their business is all about fiber and power. Everything else, including security, must be built around those two pillars. Just ask Sprint Communications, which is rolling out an ambitious E-solutions network of data centers. By the end of 2001, Sprint will have 13 data centers, with five more slated by the end of next year. Also planned are Internet centers in Asia and Europe.

The management and hosting of Web sites, applications and network operations by third-party experts has evolved from a collection of point solutions to the outsourcing of a complete IT infrastructure to companies like Sprint, Exodus, Qwest and WorldCom. Aberdeen Consulting expects the business to exceed $70 billion by 2005, according to Dana Tardelli, a research analyst for Aberdeen Group in Boston.

Choosing a Location One year ago, Sprint created a construction plan for building its Rancho Cordova Internet center, just outside Sacramento. The company applies similar plans to all of its Internet center construction efforts.

The process begins by choosing an area with the greatest number of potential customers, says Mike Fitz, Sprints director of Internet centers and hosting product management. Then the neighborhoods power supply is evaluated.

"We go to the power company and say, Tell me where youve got a minimum of 50 megawatts power on your grid, and then they give us two or three points in it [from which we make a selection]," Fitz says.

The site must be within a two-hour drive from the customer pocket, because despite the popularity of distributed computing, data center clients still want to be close to their servers. Location was one reason why Navicor, a public-sector ASP in Folsom, Calif., outsources its data center to Sprint, says Ali Ayub, the companys enterprise resource planner. A division of EA Consulting, Navicor provides ERP services on SAP R/3 to schools and local governments.

Sprints infrastructure and its close relationship with local exchange providers means easy one-stop shopping, he says.

"When we have a new client and we need a new frame relay, we just let Sprint know and they will take care of it. We dont have to go fight with all the local companies," said Ayub.

According to Fitz, the whole point is to give customers the flexibility and scalability they wouldnt have in-house. "Its not so much the volume [of storage] but the ability to add servers on-the-fly, for example, without having to go through the usual steps of copying the hard drive, etc."

The Building The next choice is whether to buy or build the data center. Fitz says Sprint is open to either, but "most often we will find a building and equip it with … all the features that make up a data center."

For its Rancho Cordovs site, Sprint used Westin Construction, a company it knows and trusts for its West Coast work, to convert the existing building into a data center. The contractors with experience building these secure facilities arent plentiful, so Fitz recommends careful investigation.

The Security For security reasons, nothing outside the building identifies it as Sprint. The Rancho Cordova facility is 40,000 square feet, small for Sprints usual range of 75,000 to 150,000 square feet. Roughly 50 percent to 60 percent of that area is raised floor and is enclosed in the data center cage. The raised floor is for flooding protection, cooling, and to run power and network cabling securely. There are two doors, a front door and a receiving door. At least two unarmed guards are on duty at all times.

"The equipment is brought in through the receiving door. Our security guard will receive the shipment and secure it in the receiving room for the customer. Customers have to notify us of what exactly is coming or we will not accept the shipment," Fitz says.

Upon walking through the front door, the customer must present a photo ID badge to the guard. Security checks it against the clients photo and information in Sprints customer database.

"Each company has a specific access list [of persons authorized to enter the facility]. Also, we have an integrated security system so that a person has access to all our centers across the country if someone has to work in more than one location," he says.

Sprint looked into biometrics, such as palm readers and retina scans, but decided that the technology wasnt reliable enough. All of Sprints data centers have 100 percent security-camera coverage, with a dedicated camera for each customers cage.

Disaster protection is equally diligent. All equipment is protected by very early smoke-detecting apparatus and an FM-200 heptafluoropropane-based fire-suppression system, which is ozone-friendly and leaves no residue on equipment.

Sprints data centers run on a tier-one dual OC-48 backbone and N+1 for critical components such as HVAC, a power-distribution unit, generators, UPS and electrical supply. According to Fitz, this is the standard that customers expect.

The company uses multiple firewall vendors, including Axent Technologies and Check Point Software. Its managed IP security services engineers install the firewall and user-authentication services, and the IP Security Operations Center manages those tools. This security is backed up off-site.

The Network Sprint offers many connectivity options. "Cisco routers terminate the OC-48s. But the routers are capable of doing more than just Internet or IP connectivity; they can also do ATM, frame-relay connectivity," says Fitz.

"We offer shared 10 megabits all the way up to OC-48s. Currently, were getting a lot of requests for Gigabit Ethernet, because its the next stage up," he adds.

The Software For managed services, Sprint offers a choice of Windows NT or Sun Solaris. In addition, the companys data centers provide Microsofts Site Server 3.0 Commerce, Windows 2000 Advanced Server for Web hosting and SQL Server 7.0.

With the growing complexity of customer systems, and the integration of Web sites and transaction systems into their legacy operations, Sprint developed a standard set of building blocks for quick installation to meet customer requirements.

Such malleability is exactly what Navicor needs, says Ayub. "We are currently supporting 1,500 users, and in the public sector the ability to protect their data [and to adjust bandwidth and storage volume as needed] are the two most important factors."

The Motivation Behemoths like Sprint believe their large investment in hosted services will tell the market that they are serious, but the market is wide open for any size company, says Carrie Lewis, an analyst of e-sourcing strategies for the Yankee Group.

The good news is that the concept of a data center still means many things and it can be built in many ways, such as for vertical markets or for developers. Companies also are constructing and managing in-house data centers for their clients rather than offsite operations. "The point of differentiation is crucial, but what that point is remains to be seen," she says.