Posted on: Wednesday October 01st, 2014

Author: John

Behind The Cloud

We recently had the opportunity to host our Melbourne User Group forum at a datacentre run by NextDC where the attendees were given a tour of the facilities.  If you have been hearing about the recent trend to Cloud-based I.T. services and are wondering how these are provided, the following is a description of how the Cloud is enabled through the use of data centres.

What is a Data Centre and where does it fit in the “Cloud”?

A data centre is a facility providing the infrastructure to host large numbers of server computers.  This type of facility can be run by a company providing hosted software services for delivery of its products or by an independent company which provides the facility as a service to other organisations that need a place to have I.T. services hosted from.

These computers are then accessed remotely in order to provide “cloud-based” computing services, whether this is software hosting, databases, email, central files storage or data backups.

How Does a Data Centre Work?

The core services provided by a data centre are security, internet access and networking, cooling and continuous power.  Because these services are provided on a large scale and to many customers, the cost of their provision is typically lower than having an in-house server room.  The facility will also provide twenty-four hour access to approved technicians and company representatives as well as other business services.

The facility is divided into groups of servers for powering, networking and, especially, cooling needs.  The building is supplied by multiple power cables, each following a separate route from the power grid to the building to prevent an accidental cut to the power.

In the event of the building losing power, multiple redundancies are in place.  This will typically involve diesel, backup generators along with a cut-over system, either a fly-wheel or battery system, to ensure continuous power in the seconds between the external feed going down and the backup generators kicking in.  These redundancies, along with excess capacity of power and cooling, are designed to ensure an up-time near 100% (Tier III facilities are assessed at the level of 99.982% up-time).

Globally, data centres are assessed by the Uptime Institute which maintains a four-tier accreditation process where Tier IV is the highest.  The highest level centres in Australia are currently rated at Tier III and around a dozen are assessed as being at this level.  More information about the rating levels can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_center#Data_center_tiers.

How Do I Access a Data Centre for My Own Cloud Systems?

A third-party data centre can be utilised in one of three ways:

  1. You license use of a hosted software product through the product’s vendor, in which case the use of the data centre is behind the scenes and the vendor deals with data centre;
  2. Through an I.T. services company, where they would use the data centre to house their computers.  You then rent part of these computer from the I.T. company.  Again, the service of the data centre are behind the scenes from your perspective.  This is typically how small- to medium-sized cloud services are enabled;
  3. By purchasing your own servers and networking hardware which you configure and then deliver to the data centre.   They are then hooked into the centre’s power, internet and cooling infrastructure and a secure connection established from your office to these computers.  The best way of imagining this scenario is as an off-site, server room.  This approach is more for large-scale operations.

In either of the first two scenarios, you should be able to ask where the services or products are being hosted from (for example, Australia Post’s digital mailbox is hosted from a Telstra, Tier III data centre).

Each of the servers in the data centre will have their own security systems in place along with firewalls and are accessed from your office through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or other secure connection which connects you directly with these machines.

Are Data Centres Reliable?

Yes.  The combination of multiple, redundant systems and security of both the internet connections and the physical building are provided to provide surety of service.

What Can This Mean for My Business?

Rather than having to purchase whole servers, then arrange for their setup, networking and maintenance, the use of a data centre or cloud server means that the resources which are leased can more easily be matched with your requirements.  Purchasing server hardware normally involves significant outlay, as the machines are normally provided with excess capacity for future growth over a lifetime of several years.  When acquiring the use of a cloud service, typically option 2 above, the resources assigned can be matched with what is required more closely and then easily adjusted as they change.  The ongoing cost is then less.

How Can I Explore Cloud-Hosted Services for My Company?

Your first port of call would be your I.T. network administrators to review your current I.T. infrastructure.  If needed, we have worked with several, reliable companies and are happy to make introductions.