Keepers of the information facing consolidation drive

DATA centres are a serious business. They require large amounts of money to establish, are kept at a constant temperature and are guarded obsessively by both human and non-human means.

The use of double military glass, video surveillance, swipe cards and biometric scanning equipment, and the placement of strict restrictions on who can enter a centre, are de rigueur in this business.

Such centres offer their clients certainty and security and, in this respect, credibility is everything – just one break-in or a period of unscheduled downtime is more than some in Perth’s small but highly competitive industry can bear.

Although these facilities have been used to store information for decades, especially by financial institutions, the widespread development of data centres is a consequence of the explosion in the use of the Internet and intranets. Even the smallest businesses have become reliant on networked servers, rather than individual computers, to store information.

The more essential a company’s access to that information is, so the reasoning goes, the greater the need is for it to be protected, whether from accidents or deliberate damage.

The events of September 11 last year helped demonstrate the value of such facilities. While thousands of computers were lost when the World Trade Center was destroyed, many companies were soon able to continue doing business as normal, relatively speaking.

Those companies ran their computer systems from servers located at other buildings in New York and therefore suffered a minimal loss of information and disruption to operations, other than for the obvious problem of losing valued staff and equipment.

Fujitsu’s Perth data centre manager Chris Smith said queries about disaster recovery services jumped after last September, but this increase did not translate into much business.

“When it comes to disaster recovery, a lot of people pay it lip service, but the people who are genuine about it put their money on the line both before and after September 11 – those people were already serious about it,” Mr Smith said.

But while Perth is unlikely to head any terrorists’ list of global financial centres to target, the operators of data centres can still offer many reasons to outsource data storage. Offices can catch fire, electricity supplies can be interrupted, and former employees can have office keys and a hankering for vengeance.

No expense is spared when it comes to guarding against any of these factors. For example, at least one of Perth’s data centres spent $100,000 on the gas for its fire suppression unit.

With such peace of mind offered, it makes sense to keep data somewhere that is virtually fireproof, permanently guarded, and has an uninterrupted power supply, or so one might think.

The truth, however, is that the demand for data centres has not met the supply of facilities offering co-location services. All over Australia there are thousands of square metres of storage space available, as empty cages and abundant rack space wait to be filled.

Most centres were built or planned in only the past two or three years, and after the technology bust of 2000, the number of companies that has chosen to use data centres has failed to meet expectations. Some of the more grandiose centres were built on “fields of dreams” expectations – if you build it, they will come.

‘They’ might yet come, but they’re taking their time, and a number of people WA Business News spoke to predicted a consolidation of the Perth market in the near future.

The branch offices of numerous international firms use the centres, particularly in the eastern states, but domestic companies have been more difficult to convince that they need to use such facilities.

Perhaps in the belief that data centres are expensive or unnecessary, SMEs have been much slower to use them. But, on the other hand, it could be that SME awareness of the existence of such facilities, and the services they offer, is limited.

Mr Smith said this was a reasonable assumption to make, but notwithstanding that, SMEs stand to gain exactly the same benefits as those enjoyed by major corporations, but at a more reasonable cost.

“Some clients take 50 square metres of floor space in our data centre, others will take one server and a rack,” he said.

“We sell it on the basis that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can give us your equipment to put in here, and we’ll worry about it for you; you can get on with your core business.”

Nor does a business’s location matter. Perth iX business development manager Marcus Ashby said that while Perth’s data centre scene was centred on the CBD, it theoretically was possible for a business anywhere in the State to use the centres, as long as a high-speed connection was in place.

“Some companies on St Georges Terrace like to know their servers are just down on William St, whereas other companies don’t worry if they’re over east; it really depends on the company and the disaster recovery climate,” Mr Ashby said.

“Resource and mining companies need quite a high-capacity pipe to servers because the amount of data they’re processing is very large, and so running that over a VPN would be uneconomical to do, so they need to have a data centre this close. But a web design company that uploads websites could have their server pretty much anywhere in the world.”

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