What do Data Centre tiers mean for business?

It makes a lot of sense to outsource your data centre to a third party. Regardless of what flavour of compute, server, data storage or management you choose – private cloud, public cloud, co-location, managed hosting – it all requires specialist skills, specialist knowledge, and dedicated facilities and management. But considering the critical role that data plays in the modern organisation, and the complexities involved, how do you know if the facility your DC provider offers is up to the task?

Data centres aren’t data centres

Not every data centre is the same. They offer different services and service levels that reflect their capability to support your business. Determining the right data centre for you starts with understanding your business requirements.

Depending on your industry you might find that due to heavy regulatory compliance around the storage and management of data that your requirements are quite prescriptive, for example:

  • In digital government applications, some types of data are mandated to be retained for a lifetime.
  • In resources and mining, real time and remote operations require constant availability for the safety of staff. Downtime can also mean significant costs – to reputation, to revenue, to operations.
  • In financial services – storage, management, and security needs are critical to ensure the integrity of financial transactions.

Once you’ve worked out the non-negotiables you can match those to the capabilities and competencies of the providers vying for your business. At this point though, how do you know if what’s on offer really fits the bill? Salespeople say a lot of things, and the last thing you want is to find out that your data centre doesn’t offer the assurance you thought it did by way of an extended and costly outage.

Accreditations reduce risk

Luckily, there are trusted and highly-regarded accreditations you can look to, to reduce the risk. The most well-known data centre standard and accreditation is that provided by the Uptime Institute.

This accreditation uses the concept of tiers to describe a minimum level of standards that reflect the design quality, performance and reliability of the data centre. By choosing a data centre provider with a particular Uptime Institute tier accreditation you have the certification which outlines the defined level of service you will attain. (You can include a minimum Tier accreditation in your Request For Tender as well.)

So what are the different Data Centre tiers?

Tiers refer to the separate operational and design standards that are used to compare the key functional and desirable characteristic of a data centre – its availability or “uptime”. Essentially, the tiers provide a set of standards that can be used to identify how much redundancy is designed and implemented in a data centre’s operations.

The more redundancy there is in a system, the less prone the system will be to outages and the more likely it will be to remain available. Thus, the higher the tier, the more comprehensive the capabilities will be for data centre reliability. There are four different levels of tiers, with each encompassing and exceeding the level beneath it.

Note: The information provided below is intentionally high level. For more detailed definitions of the tiers, see the Uptime Institute’s Tier Standards for Topology and Operational Sustainability

Tier I
  • No redundancy in components and a single distribution path to the environment
  • UPS filter for spikes and coverage for short outages
  • Dedicated cooling
  • A generator to protect against extended power outages for IT functions with 12 hours fuel stored on site
  • This level of site may be prone to planned and unplanned outages which will impact critical systems
  • This site must be shut down at least annually for maintenance
Tier II
  • Redundancy for components and a single distribution path to the environment
  • Redundancy covers additional generators, UPS, fuel storage and cooling
  • 12 hours of fuel stored on site for predetermined capacity
  • This level of site may be prone to planned and unplanned outages
  • Unplanned component failures may affect critical systems
  • This site must be shut down at least annually for maintenance
Tier III
  • Redundancy for capacity components and multiple distribution paths to the environment (only one path is required at any time)
  • IT equipment has the choice of dual-power
  • 12 hours of fuel stored on site for predetermined capacity
  • “Concurrently maintainable” – i.e. planned maintenance can occur using redundant capacity components and distribution paths
Tier IV
  • “Fault tolerant” – i.e. has multiple, independent systems that are physically isolated, redundant capacity components, and multiple independent distribution paths to the environment. These paths are ‘active’ in that they are used simultaneously
  • IT equipment has the choice of dual-power
  • Continuous cooling
  • 12 hours of fuel stored on site for predetermined capacity
  • This site is not prone to an outage from any single unplanned event or planned events

So which data centre is for you?

Again it comes down to your business requirements and the regulatory framework to which you belong. There are costs to consider as well – understandably costs increase as you go up the tiers and there’s no point paying for a Tier IV centre if your business’s critical operations can withstand weeks of downtime without significant costs (unlikely but possible).

Increasingly a Tier III data centre is the baseline for modern business. In reality a Tier III data centre means reliability in the form of almost continuous uptime for real-time, mission critical applications. Tier III is often the minimum bar for regulatory compliance, as in the example industries we mentioned above – digital government, resources and financial services. (Of note, Metronode, data centre provider and part of the Nextgen group, have 5 data centre facilities which are Tier III certified and have offered customers 100% uptime for over 12 years.)

Obviously, there’s always some risk when you choose to outsource critical operations to a third party. But luckily Uptime Institute Tier accreditations can offer you the confidence you need to make the right decision, meet regulatory compliance commitments and take advantage of the certified performance assurances.