The Essential Guide to Colocation

Updated: April 30, 2009

There comes a time in every IT department's life when the decision must be made to keep IT infrastructure in-house or farm it out somewhere else. Large enterprises have the space and dollars to build and expand their own datacenters , hire qualified staff and protect their business continuity. But SMBs (small- to medium-sized businesses) generally opt to place their IT infrastructure in someone else's facility.

Colocation, or "colo," is hosting your equipment and software in a facility along with those of other firms. Essentially, you rent dedicated space and bandwidth from a colo facility, which the provider manages to keep all of its tenants' assets secure and connected.

The Advantages

With colocation, you can get access to high-speed, redundant bandwidth for a fraction of what it would cost on your own premise. Colo facilities have redundant, high-speed links to several backbone ISPs. Tenants share these connections through pipes of varying sizes. Monthly price depends on how much guaranteed bandwidth is desired.

Colo tenants own their equipment and software. This allows much more flexibility in upgrading servers and other equipment; you simply do it yourself. Companies using managed Web hosting, in contrast, must make do with whatever standard equipment and software the service provides.

The buildings in which colocation facilities are housed are constructed with security and fault tolerance in mind. Physical access to the colo facility is carefully controlled and monitored. Power lines are redundant, and backup generators are available in case of power outages. Cooling systems are generally state-of-the-art, providing protection for tenants' equipment.

Colo facilities provide a measure of privacy for corporate assets because their physical locations are generally not disclosed. The chances of theft or sabotage are reduced when people don't know where your equipment is.

Decoupling critical IT infrastructure from a business's primary location provides a firm with greater flexibility for locating its non-IT business offices. A business can move from one location to another while leaving its IT infrastructure in the colo facility.

Management and maintenance of IT infrastructure can be outsourced to the colo-facility staff, saving a business the cost of maintaining its own IT staff.

The Drawbacks

A colo facility should be reasonably close to a business's main location to reduce travel to and from the colo facility. Occasional travel will be necessary to upgrade hardware and software.

Sharing space with other tenants raises some security concerns. Vendors usually mitigate this risk by providing physically secured "apartments" or cages for each tenant's equipment.

Finding a colocation facility near your place of business can be difficult if your main business is outside of a major metropolitan area. A number of directories to colocation facilities are available on the Web to help shoppers find colo facilities. One of them is Data Center Map , a site created by Web-hosting service provider ActiveWebs, based in Denmark. A search on Google Maps provides locations of 584 colocation facilities around the world.

Checking Out a Colocation Facility

Aside from location, there are many other questions you should ask a colo vendor.

During a physical tour of the prospective colo site, you should ask to see the security arrangements. These include physical security measures such as access-control systems, surveillance and on-site security staff. Be sure to learn all you can about the cooling and fire-prevention systems as well. The building should be designed and located to minimize damage from flood, storms and other natural disasters.

The bandwidth you will be able to use depends partly on how fast the link between your equipment and the colo facility's network is. The colo facility may have multiple OC-X connections to the Internet, but if your link to the colo facility's network is 100 Mbps, that's all you'll get.

The colo facility's uptime record is of vital importance. Ask to see historical data on the frequency and duration of outages. A guarantee of 99.9 percent uptime is the absolute least you should expect. In addition, you need to know how long outages in the past have lasted.

Be sure to ask about when you will have opportunities to access to your equipment. Some colo facilities require advance notice of customer visits, while others are more flexible. Some colo facilities are open 24/7, while others restrict access to business hours.

The network-security measures designed to keep hackers out are also important to consider. What sort of firewalls, intrusion-detection systems, monitoring services and other security measures does the colo facility offer?

What assistance will the colo facility provide in maintaining your equipment and software? This may range from basic notices of downtime to hands-on parts replacement and rebooting. Expect to pay extra for more services, either in the form of monthly maintenance contracts or on an ad hoc hourly basis.

Finally, review the vendor's SLA (Service Level Agreement).This contract defines each party's responsibilities for maintaining equipment, software and connectivity. It should spell out clearly what the vendor's responsibilities are and what the penalties for nonperformance will be. The SLA should also provide a termination clause that gives the customer a way out if service is chronically unsatisfactory.

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