The NSA data center with the Salt Lake Valley in the background in Bluffdale, Utah, in 2013. The data center has reportedly been plagued by power surges that destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and delayed the opening of the center for a year. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

Uptime Institute Kills Tier Certification for Commercial Data Center Designs

Yesterday’s massive United Airlines and New York Stock Exchange outages served as a reminder of just how much the world today depends on reliability of IT infrastructure.

NYSE traced its 3.5-hour outage to a “configuration issue,” and United said it had to ground all of its flights around the world for hours because of a malfunctioning network router. Both were IT problems, but a lot of thought and money also goes into designing resilient underlying data center infrastructure – the power and cooling systems – to make sure IT systems stay online.

The way the most important rating system for data center reliability works has been changed recently. Starting at the beginning of this month, Uptime Institute, a division of the 451 Group, will no longer issue Tier certification for design documents to North American companies that provide commercial data center services, from colocation to cloud.

The Uptime Tier system, which rates data center efficiency on the scale of I (least reliable) to IV (most reliable) has long been criticized for numerous reasons, but the biggest complaint has been the proliferation of misuse of its terminology.

Many data center providers have claimed that their data center design is Tier III or Tier IV without actually going through the expensive process of having Uptime certify their facility. Market benefits of such claims for service providers are clear: higher reliability means more sales.

Design Certification Opened Doors to Abuse

Complicating things further has been Uptime’s practice of issuing separate certifications for design documents and for constructed facilities. A company could get design documents certified without actually building the facility to those designs. And some did, proceeding to market their facilities as something they weren’t.

To combat the abuse, Uptime put two-year expiration on design certifications in 2014. Essentially, if you received a design certification, you had two years to build the data center and get it certified as a constructed facility or risk losing the design certification.

All design and constructed-facility certifications are listed on the organization’s website, so it’s very easy to verify data center providers’ Tier claims.

Uptime spokesman Matt Stansberry said the two-year limit was the first step in stopping abuse; this month’s changes were the second.

“The main reason is to prevent folks from using a certification of their design (as) a marketing tool for their facility, when they haven’t actually certified the facility,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that can change between that plan and the final facility.”

Certified Providers Put Pressure on Uptime

Uptime has received lots of complaints from data center providers that had gone through the expensive facility certification process and were competing for the same business with providers that had not certified their facilities but claimed that they had high tier ratings, Stansberry said.

Colorado-based ViaWest was the subject of a complaint that came to the State of Nevada Attorney General, accusing the data center provider, owned by a Canadian telco called Shaw Communications, of misrepresenting the Uptime Tier rating of its Lone Mountain data center in Las Vegas.

Chris Crosby, CEO of Compass Datacenters, which has received Tier III constructed-facility certification for six data centers, said in a blog post that the practice of claiming Tier III or IV certification based on design documents alone was “patently deceptive, since customers believe the facility has been constructed to meet certification criteria, when in fact it hasn’t.”

Another data center provider that has been complaining actively is Switch, a Las Vegas-based company with a massive campus there called SuperNAP. Switch is currently building another huge SuperNAP in Reno, Nevada, where eBay will be the anchor tenant.

One of Switch’s data centers in Vegas has Tier IV certification for constructed facility. Two more have Tier IV design-doc certifications.

The company has been complaining about abuse of the Uptime Tier system and even indicated to the organization that it would not pursue facility certification in the future if it doesn’t change its rules, Rob Roy, Switch founder and CEO, said in an interview.

“It’s really sad that our industry has devolved to the point where (many) data centers misrepresent something about their sites,” Roy said.

The recent changes by Uptime were a welcome development for Switch. “We’re 100 percent behind this,” Roy said. “Really happy that Uptime’s doing stuff.”

Changes May Expand Internationally

Changes in the Uptime Tier certification policy apply only to companies that make money by providing services out of their data centers and only to companies in North America. They apply to “folks who basically sell computing capacity in some form,” Stansberry said.

It’s not beneficial for enterprises that operate their own data centers to support their IT needs to misrepresent their facility Tier rating, because they don’t compete for customers. A design certification is a useful benchmark for enterprise data center operators and can be an “important milestone,” Stansberry said.

The reason Uptime limited the restriction to North America was that the most pressure came from North American companies, he explained. While no decision has been made to expand the restriction globally, Stansberry said he would not rule that possibility out.

Uptime will not annul design-doc certifications it issued before the changes went into effect on July 1 retroactively, Stansberry said.

Similarly, design certifications that were issued before the two-year expiration period was put in place in 2014 will not expire.

“That doesn’t mean we will not find a way to identify all ‘stranded’ design certifications in the future,” he said. “It just means that they won’t expire.”

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About the Author

San Francisco-based business and technology journalist. Editor in chief at Data Center Knowledge, covering the global data center industry.

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  1. Tim Bloch

    I hope that ViaWest - AKA "LiarWest" feels utter shame that their fraudulent use of the Uptime certification process has caused the de-facto standards body of data centers to change a twenty year practice in North America because of their lack of ethics. If you go online right now and Google search for ViaWest tier IV you will still find hundreds of articles and sales materials describing their Las Vegas data center as Tier IV. They marketed the first phase of their Lone Mountain site for two years as tier IV. That phase has never been construction certified and is rumored to only meet Tier II criteria. The new second phase was first tested as Tier II and they were allowed to make changes to get it to entry level tier III. They are still marketing the site today as "fault tolerant" on their website which is a Tier IV designation. Is the biggest risk when choosing a data center provider a power outage, an hvac shutdown, connectivity failure or is the biggest risk selecting a data center provider that has an unethical senior team? If the people who own and run the data center will misrepresent anything to trick you into becoming a client and if they will lie about something as mission critical as the true design of the facility then what would keep them from lying about almost anything else going forward! Dave Leonard and Nancy Phillips should be truly ashamed that their deception has altered an entire industry! Hopefully going forward the data center industry will call out and shun misleading marketing of all attributes that make up the serious, mission critical and ever more important data center services vertical.

  2. David Malone

    What happens to commercial data centers that have already gotten the Tier Construction Certifications? Will they expire?

  3. Yevgeniy Sverdlik Post author

    Nothing will happen to certifications for constructed facilities. The changes are only for certification of design documents.

  4. Tim Block Jr

    Tim Bloch sounds like his a competitor to ViaWest.. he always mentions them.

  5. Tim Bloch

    Tim block Jr. ?... Yes, we do compete with "LiarWest". I work for a hosting and cloud company that is located at Switch's SuperNAP 8 in Las Vegas. It should be understood that Viawest's deception is not only an affront to other certified Colocation companies but also against those that compete against ViaWest's managed hosting and cloud products. Our company chose the SuperNAP 8 because it is the worlds only Tier IV gold certified multi-tenant data center. We want our clients to trust not only our cloud products and services but also the infrastructure that supports that service. "LiarWest" also sells hosting and cloud services and when they lie to the public about the infrastructure supporting their cloud (i.e. Fake Tier IV), it is a huge fraudulent injustice to those of us that practice the TRUTH and market the TRUTH. Would you be critical of a neurosurgeon that is pointing out the fake credentials of a veterinarian that is marketing his qualifications as one of the world's highest rated human brain specialists?