Flexential's data center in Brookwood, Oregon Flexential
Flexential's data center in Brookwood, Oregon

Flexential CEO On Eyeing Primary Markets, New Network Platform, Professional Services

Chris Downie updates DCK on post-merger strategy, as we tour Flexential's Charlotte data center.

As we entered a conference room at Flexential's headquarters in Charlotte, Chris Downie, the company's CEO, expressed disappointment that I hadn't been able to visit one of the company's more impressive data centers, mentioning Denver, where the company has a 35,000-square foot facility downtown. A little over a year ago, after a merger of two regional operators -- Charlotte-based Peak 10 and Denver-based ViaWest -- Flexential emerged as a colocation company with a national footprint. Downie, who'd been Peak 10's CEO since 2016, wanted to put his best foot forward.

Earlier in the day I was treated to a tour of the company's North Charlotte data center, which weighs in at 20,000 square feet, or a little over half the size of the Denver facility. One of two data center locations the company has in Charlotte, it's about a half-hour drive from Flexential's headquarters, located across town, near the South Carolina state line. Across the street from the company's offices sit Flexential's three original Charlotte data centers, all in one building.

During the tour of the newer facility, Michael Brannon, the solutions engineer who'd served as guide, said, "Walking through the three data centers in South Charlotte one by one is like walking through pages of data center history."

Although colocation operators spend a lot of time talking about the various high-tech features they offer -- things like public cloud on-ramps or special networking capabilities -- they're really not as much about data streams running through servers as they are about the facilities housing and supporting the IT. In this regard, the North Charlotte data center was pretty much top-of-the-line when it was first fired up in 2012. But six years is a long time in tech -- and what was new then, although not yet outdated, is not exactly cutting-edge anymore.

The center's usable raised-floor space is pretty much full. The original plan was for it to be a wall-to-wall high-density data center filled with rows of cabinets, but there was more customer demand for enclosed cage spaces, which tend to be lower-density because customers usually create work space alongside their equipment cabinets. The lower density necessitated opening up of some space held for expansion prematurely, to take advantage of available power. "Because, if you have power available, you use it," Brannon said.

But the building can accommodate about 63,000 square feet of white space total, so there's plenty of room to continue expanding.

Other than that, it's pretty standard stuff.

The 3MW facility has five backup generators, with battery backup that can keep the IT running without cooling for fifteen minutes while the generators automatically start. A three-day supply of fuel is kept on premises, with arrangements made for additional fuel in the event of a prolonged outage.

Fire protection is handled through infrared sensors and garden-variety smoke detectors not unlike what you may find at Ace Hardware, but includes a gee-whiz VESDA system that can sniff an overheating fan bearing or CPU long before it becomes a technical problem, much less a fire hazard. As protection against water damage, the sprinkler system is kept empty and is only pressurized with water when the smoke detectors activate. The latter is a purely precautionary step, since thirty seconds after both the infrared and standard smoke detectors sound an alarm the room will fill with costly fire smothering gas.

"In case of a false alarm," Brannon said, pointing to a wall mounted button, "staff has thirty seconds to get in here and press that button to stop the gas from being released."

Cooling comes from thee giant chillers that, like the generators, sit on the roof, each supplying 300 tons of cooling capacity.

East Meets West

As a brand, Flexential has been around for less than a year, coming into existence about five months after the merger. Downie was at the helm when Peak 10 crossed the bridge from regional to national, having replaced Peak10's founder, Dave Jones. Jones, along with Nancy Phillips, ViaWest's CEO when the merger took place, remain with the company as board members.

"The reason we did the deal was that it was a great opportunity to basically scale the platform to get in front of any demand set, at least in the US," Downie said. "Having a national portfolio is very meaningful, because you can deliver solutions to your customers really anywhere they need."

Before the name change, the company operated as Peak 10+ViaWest, and Downie said the company went through "a fairly laborious exercise" to come up with the name. Nearly a year later, company employees say they still spend a lot of time explaining the new name, a combination of "flexibility" and "essential," to customers that were around before the change.

"ViaWest, obviously, would have been a tricky name to put on a national company, just given the 'West' part of that name, and Peak 10, interestingly enough, was named after a ski run in Breckenridge, Colorado, so they both have Colorado roots, which is interesting," Downie said. "But you know, in a lot of ways the company is very much new, so we felt it was a good time to pick a new name that represented the new value proposition that we're bringing to market."

Coming up with a new name hasn't been the only change the company had to make, as it suddenly found itself in direct competition with the likes of Digital Realty and Equinix. The rebranded company has had to beef up its sales staff, both to reach out to potential new customers in areas previously not served by Peak 10 or ViaWest, as well as getting the word out to existing customers whose needs Flexential can meet outside the two pre-merger companies' scope.

"Obviously a new name is new to everybody, but in a lot of ways, whether it's our existing customers or our new customers, Flexential wasn't on the scene before, and now we very much are," he said. "Our existing customers didn't think about us on a national basis. That's where building awareness with existing customers that want to do something west or east of the Mississippi, depending on where they are, comes in. If they're not keeping a steady awareness on what we're doing, then they're likely to default to somebody else, even when they're with us. Awareness is pretty key."

Eyeing Primary Markets

As regional carriers, both Peak 10 and ViaWest focused on tier-two data center markets. When asked if that was by design, Downie said, "I think it was sort of by design in the past, but it's not necessarily by design going forward." The company does also have data centers in Atlanta and Dallas, both of which are thought of as primary markets.

"We definitely want to go into more of the tier-one markets," he said. "We're not out there yet today, but we likely will be in the future."

His wish list for market expansion includes New York/New Jersey; Ashburn, Virginia; Chicago; and California. Although being able to offer colocation space in these markets would be a plus, in the meantime the company has customers who need connectivity to the major markets covered.

Advanced Connectivity Platform, Professional Services

"One of the things that we've been building recognition around is the network backplane that we have that ties all of our facilities together, because it extends into markets where we're not," he added. "So we like to think our network provides a federation requirement for our customers. It's fairly ubiquitous, regardless of whether IT infrastructure is there."

He was talking about FlexAnywhere, the company's network platform announced several months back that links all its locations and gives customers access to larger core-market data centers like Equinix in Ashburn, One Wilshire in Los Angeles, or 350 East Cermak in Chicago.

According to Downie, it's services such as this that go beyond the basics of space, power, connectivity, and cooling that can distinguish a colocation provider.

"Some customers come in and they just want network-enabled colocation, which is great," he said, "but if they want to leverage cloud compute utility or managed solutions, then professional services is something we have in reasonable scale that we don't think many of our peers do.

"We have a 60-person professional services organization, some events engineering resources that basically can solve compliance, security, and some of the more complicated issues that companies face as they deploy their IT infrastructure. This group can be brought in at the point of onboarding to make sure their architecture is optimized for a given environment, or if they need help advancing their own cloud aspirations. Professional services is very important, I think, and will probably become more important as these environments become more complex."

Before our conversation ended, I asked Downie to get out his crystal ball and predict what he thinks will be different in the data center business 10 or 15 years down the road.

"I think there will be more consumed in less space over time," he answered. "Some might translate that into a bad thing for the data center. I tend to look at that as a good thing." The more efficient a customer's operations are, the better they are positioned for growth, and that can only benefit their service providers.

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