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Commercial Real Estate

Brant Bernet: Moby Dick and Your Data Center

Our children named our very first Betta Fish, Moby. Moby was built, we discovered one day, with what we in the data center business call a "concurrently maintainable infrastructure." When the water in his normal habitat is too contaminated to breath, he has a backup system that allows him to bypass his gills and breathe our air.
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Brant Bernet

“Call me Ishmael,” said the young, nomadic traveler as he embarked on his adventures with Captain Ahab and his band of grungy, tattooed whalers. Little did Ishmael know that his voyage would be driven by the Captain’s unique disdain for the “Great White Whale named Moby Dick.” When my kids were younger, I would create bedtime stories around that horrible, ruthless, killer whale. Most nights I convinced them that I was, in fact, the one-legged Captain, incarnate.

It was with that memory that our children named our very first Betta Fish, (a.k.a. B. splendes or Siamese Fighting Fish), Moby. Moby was a beautiful blue color with a long, flowing tail. His beauty however, was a cruel and needless front, for he lived alone in our kitchen, in a one-room, tiny glass cell filled with semi-clean, but contaminant-free tap water. What a life. I justified leaving him in his “aquarium” by telling the kids that his brain was smaller than ours and therefore he could not comprehend his own misery.

On the other side of the world, we have a small, backyard brick pond that is home to 21 goldfish, three turtles and a few mosquito larvae. Every website dedicated to the Betta Fish forbids cross-pollination of its sponsor with anything—literally, anything. Apparently all water bound creatures hate the Siamese Fighting Fish (with a cocky name like that, who can blame them?), and the Betta hates them all back.
Despite the warnings, and with nothing but good intentions, we ceremoniously placed Moby in the pond, fairly confident that his flowing azure mane would be construed as a tasty lunch by his new suitemates. Eight long months later, Moby had been accepted into the aquatic community and was thriving. Unfortunately, his fairytale life was about to take an abrupt directional change.

A couple times a year, I have to clean the pond…the fish and turtles come out, we pray they survive the trauma, the pond gets cleaned and treated, then everyone goes home. During the process, Moby got his own holding tank (a small Dixie cup of water that we placed away from the other fish, so as not to tempt fate). After the deed was done and the pond was prepped and ready, I went to replace our little buddy. Alas, he was gone! His holding cup was very small, so I was pretty sure he wasn’t hiding…maybe Willie the cat (remember him?) made a meal of him? Maybe one of the dogs? A bird? We said an emotional and tearful goodbye and went inside to make margaritas.

An hour later I returned to the scene of the crime for my final forensics exercise, and there he was … about two feet from the cup, covered in ants, shriveled, completely finless and tailless (the ants had helped with the decomposing process). He was stiff as a rock, but I decided to clean him off before performing his second memorial service of the day. What is this???? When he hit the water, he moved … then he moved again … then he swam. Within three minutes, his little brown body was bright blue again and, despite the shortened appendages, he was feebly frolicking with the other pond occupants.

You see, our little fish was built with, as we say in the data center biz, a concurrently maintainable infrastructure. When the water in his normal habitat is too contaminated to breath, he has a backup system that allows him to bypass his gills and breathe our air by using his lung-like “Labyrinth organ.” When the air is contaminated, he rocks along like his less developed fishy counterparts with the use of his oxygen filtering gills. When it comes to breathing, he is disaster-proof. Are you?

The Uptime Institute defines concurrently maintainable as “each and every capacity component and element in the distribution paths can be removed from service on a planned basis without impacting any of the computer equipment” and that “there is sufficient permanently installed capacity to meet the needs of the site when redundant components are removed from service for any reason.” This is one of the star qualities of what we refer to as Tier III architecture. This safety net allows for planned activities (preventative maintenance, equipment repair and replacement, etc) to take place without disruption the data center function in any way.

As I have said before, the tier system was drafted by the Uptime Institute and, although it is known worldwide as the standard for data center classification, it is not without its shortcomings. For one, so many versions of the original have been published that the lines that were once very clear are now anything but. Is it a Tier III or a Tier 3 or a Tier Three? Believe it or not, each has its own meaning. Your data center can get the Tier III seal of approval by the Uptime Institute, but now you have to pay for it±something that many margin-based companies will not do.

So how can you be sure? How do you know if what you are being sold is actually what you are buying? Find someone who understands the pitfalls, someone who studies data center infrastructure. Many companies are willing to pay for the Tier III moniker because it satisfies a client request or company mandate, but for most, they just want the components, in a reliable, functioning and easy to understand form.

My dad used to say, “I am 220 pounds of twisted steel, taught and ready for action.” That was Moby, just a much smaller version. Not only did he survive, but his tail and fins grew back to twice the original length. His blue was bluer and he started hanging out in other, more dangerous corners of the pond. He continued to romp thru the mean streets of our backyard pond until one day, he was just gone. Turtle soup, maybe? Got caught in the bubbler? Could have.

I tend to imagine he packed his little bags, strapped on his Nikes and hit the road, gulping down air like it was free. God gave Moby a back-up plan—one that he didn’t have to research, it just came natural. When he jumped out of his Dixie cup on to the hard rocks below, his batteries charged just long enough for his generator to kick in. My guess is that his “Labyrinth organ” was as much of a surprise to him as it was to me. For him, the surprise worked out OK. But don’t count on Moby’s luck with your next data center.

Brant Bernet is senior vice president of CBRE, where he leads the firm’s critical environments group in Dallas. Contact him at [email protected].

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