Understanding Data Center Tier Ratings

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What Are Uptime Institute Data Center Tiers?

The Uptime Institute was created in the late 1980’s with a purpose of aiding data center companies in measuring and demonstrating expected facility performance. Acquired by the 451 Group in 2009, Uptime Institute is known for its data center Tier classification system. The purpose of the “Tiers” is to establish graduating levels of data center capability in power, cooling, maintenance and resiliency to meet graduating levels of business requirements.

The Tiers define standards but not are explicit in technology or design. There is flexibility in how a standard is met or what technology is used. How you do it is not as important as if you do it. Essentially, the Tiers create the ability to use a third-party attestation to demonstrate compliance, adherence to or fulfillment of specific requirements. Uptime Institute Tier Certifications are paid assessments and are the only data center industry benchmark adopted around the world.

What are the Individual Data Center Tier Ratings?

There are four data center Tier levels (Tier I – Tier IV), each with progressing requirements. The full explanation is defined in the Uptime Institute Tier Levels.

Tier I Data Center – Specific area for IT systems, Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS), dedicated cooling and generation in case of utility power failures. The data center will shut down for maintenance or repairs.

Tier II Data Center – Redundancy is added for power and cooling beyond Tier I and a single distribution (power delivery) path services critical components. Maintenance can be performed without entire data center shutdown, although failures will affect the system.

Tier III Data Center – Tier III data centers are concurrently maintainable with component and distribution redundancy allowing for maintenance and repair without any system shutdown.

Tier IV Data Center – Tier IV data centers have multiple, independent, physically isolated components that deliver full equipment and distribution redundancy. Tier IV adds fault tolerance to Tier III.

A simplified theme of the graduating Tiers is that redundancy is improved, which necessitates additional design and equipment. The Tier levels do not infer value; just differences in capability and performance. The value in one Tier over another is in the “eye of the beholder.” The benefit analysis looks at the value of availability vs. the cost of achievement.

Why Do Data Center Tier Ratings Matter?

Data Center Map, an aggregation agent for colocation data centers lists over 1,700 data centers in the United States. The number is probably between 2,000 and 2,500. Customers have choices from small computer-rooms to mega-data centers. Given the range of design and construction methods, how does a customer decide what data center capabilities best meet their needs? Uptime Institute Tier ratings provide a guide. A customer assesses their availability tolerance, chooses a Tier rating that best matches their requirements and seeks a provider who has been certified by the Uptime Institute to that Tier.

This sounds simplistic but how many customers have the engineering background to assess single line diagrams or understand heat transfer or fluid dynamics? If you want comfort that your taxes are being done correctly, you go to a Certified Public Accountant. If you want comfort that your data center provider can meet your availability needs, than find an Uptime Institute Tier certified provider. Easy enough?

What if you don’t have a Tier rated data center in your proximity or you’re evaluating a data center that’s not certified? The Uptime Institute Tier requirements will act as a reference for your data center selection due diligence. The fundamental reason for a data center is to provide secure, reliable space and cooled power. Ask questions about designed redundancy and capacities, historical availability, what has to happen to perform critical maintenance, etc. You may not like the answers but at least you’ll know what you’re getting into.

Part of the value of a Tier certified data center is in knowing that professional engineers have assessed and tested a data center’s capabilities. You have proof through the certification report that the data center was designed and/or constructed to meet a standard. You don’t have to figure out yourself what’s under the hood. Knowing that not all data center operators pursue Tier certification, some customers use the Tier rating in RFP’s as a bonus to respondents who comply.

Who Benefits from Data Center Tier Certification?

You may imagine that the customer is the sole beneficiary of data center Tier certification; this isn’t necessarily true. Certainly, the customer benefits by having the data center provider prove capability through the Tier certification program, but the data center operator benefits as well. The Uptime Institute Tier certification program requires investment by the data center operator in both time and money. This investment validates design, operational capabilities and identifies any possible gaps that may have occurred between design, construction and commissioning.

What Data Center Tier Rating Should You Ask For?

As stated previously, customers need to understand their availability tolerance. How much downtime or system interruption is acceptable? Next, customers should ask for Tier certification in both design AND construction. The reason is this. Disconnects between design intent and as built can occur. Customers need to know that the intent and the build matches their requirements and there were no deviations in construction that could impact availability.

It may seem simple to pick the highest Tier (fault tolerant) and say “that’s what I want”. Each Tier comes with a cost, with Tier IV being the most complicated and expensive data center build. With that cost comes a commensurate price to the customer. In most cases, Tier III will satisfy a customer’s risk profile at a reasonable price point. Another way to think about availability is to use a Business Impact Analysis to inform how an interruption to critical operations effects the business.

What Doesn’t an Uptime Institute Tier certification Do?

A Tier certification assesses the what, not necessarily the how. It does not evaluate the reliability of components, security, the efficiency of the data center or the operating cost. Tier certification does not assess natural or man-made threats or how the data center is being monitored or maintained. But it does express how the data center should perform given a rigorous set of requirements.

DC BLOX’s Tier III Certification Journey

DC BLOX’s greenfield data centers all use the same design. Our industry experts created a highly efficient, cost-effective data center that could be incrementally expanded in a smaller footprint. Our vision of bringing digital infrastructure to underserved and growing mid-markets included making sure our products were as good if not better than what was available in major metropolitan areas. That meant that our design target must be concurrently maintainable. We commissioned our data centers with redundancy so that single points of failure or taking critical infrastructure offline for maintenance would not shut down the entire system.

DC BLOX’s design is distributed redundant which distributes load over more than two different systems. For example, in a “three to make two” or 3N/2model, the systems are aligned in an A, B and C configuration with three isolated paths for power from transformation to a customer’s equipment. Load for each system is balanced so that in the event of a system failure or during maintenance other systems have capacity to accept the critical load. Each DC BLOX data hall has capacity for 4N/3 or “four to make three”. There is redundancy for transformation, UPS, generation, switchboards, PDU, busway, bus plug, cabinet ePDU, Computer Room Air Conditioners (CRAC) and condensers.

DC BLOX uses highly respected agents to commission our data centers, so we knew the capabilities of each property. They were concurrently maintainable, and we wanted to demonstrate that our products were as good as those in the NFL cities. So, we pursued our Tier III certification; starting with our Birmingham, Alabama data center.

While it’s not preferred to perform the rigorous testing necessary for a Tier III certification on an operating data center, we were confident in our design and construction. Due to the pandemic, Uptime Institute’s Professional Engineers were flexible in scheduling and creative in monitoring methods. For example, the Uptime team was able to easily watch all scenario-based tests in real time through to our fully customized and robust Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system.

DC BLOX is proud to be the only Tier III, multi-tenant data center in the State of Alabama. We’re proving to the great businesses of Alabama that they don’t need to go out of State anymore to secure premium data center and infrastructure services.

DC BLOX’s data centers are located in the Southeastern US in Atlanta, GA; Birmingham, AL; Huntsville, AL; and Chattanooga, TN. Our newest data center will be coming soon to Greenville, SC. If your business is located in the Southeastern US, contact us to find out more about our data centers.

What does the future look like?

Until another standard emerges, Uptime Institute’s Tier certification will continue to be the gold standard for assessing data center performance. It’s been durable for over 25 years. Some people question the paid assessment model used by Uptime Institute. Does your accountant do your taxes for free? There’s value in third party attestation and as long as Uptime Institute maintains its high standards for assessment, Tier certification will continue to be the benchmark for discerning customers.

About DC BLOX
DC BLOX owns and operates interconnected multi-tenant data centers that deliver the infrastructure and connectivity essential to power today’s digital business. DC BLOX’s private network fabric and robust connectivity ecosystem enable access to built-in carriers, Internet exchanges, public cloud providers, and DC BLOX data centers to businesses across the Southeast. DC BLOX’s data centers are located in Atlanta, GA; Birmingham, AL; Huntsville, AL; and Chattanooga, TN. For more information, please visit www.dcblox.com, call +1. 877.590.1684, and connect with DC BLOX on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
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