The COVID-19 pandemic is putting data center infrastructure around the world to the test, as more users rely on it for remote work. That includes workers that manage their employers’ data center infrastructure inside colocation facilities, many of which are either not allowing customers or vendors in – outside emergency situations – or severely restricting access to prevent having the virus brought inside their facilities.
But colocation providers and their customers are generally in good shape, experts say, because the providers already have systems in place for remote monitoring and tech support requests.
Even when customers can no longer visit the facilities, many can still monitor their infrastructure with tools that provide visibility into cooling, networks, physical security, and other critical functions.
Meanwhile, the use of remote support options such as smart hands services has been growing.
Lockdowns Spike Network Traffic
Traffic related to the use of remote collaboration tools is ten times higher this week than normal, Verizon said in a report released Thursday; gaming traffic has more than doubled; VPN, video, and web traffic are also up significantly, though the increase is leveling off.
Comcast is also seeing traffic leveling off after a big spike. The company reported Tuesday a 212 percent increase in voice and video conferencing traffic and a 40 percent increase in VPN traffic.
Overall, peak traffic on Comcast’s network is up 32 percent around the country, with some areas seeing 60 percent increases.
Keeping Colo Foot Traffic to a Minimum
Even though many jurisdictions under lockdown orders consider data centers to be essential services, meaning their employees are allowed to go to work to keep the services going, colocation customers, companies with servers and network infrastructure hosted in shared data center facilities, may not have physical access to their equipment at the moment.
Two weeks ago, the US Department of Homeland Security spelled out who was considered an essential critical infrastructure worker during the COVID-19 response.
The memorandum specifically mentions "data center operators, including system administrators, HVAC & electrical engineers, security personnel, IT managers, data transfer solutions engineers, software and hardware engineers, and database administrators."
Even in areas without restrictions in place, many colocation providers are reducing customer access to protect both customers and employees.
Remote Tools, Support Services Become Crucial
To meet customer needs, colocation providers are using online data center infrastructure management customer portals for remote monitoring and IT support ticketing, according to a report this week by the Uptime Institute.
Colocation providers are also promoting their remote-hands services, said the report. These services cover things like IT equipment moves and additions, changes, and maintenance; troubleshooting of power, IT, router, firewall, and other devices; and shipping and receiving on customers’ behalf.
"We're seeing increased demands for secure remote access solutions," said Mitch Fonseca, VP of data center products at Cyxtera, a global data center provider.
The company's data center platform offers both web and API access to configuration and deployment tools, which reduces the need for customer technicians to visit its facilities, he told DCK.
"The coronavirus crisis and the need for social distancing are forcing enterprises to rethink how they access critical systems like data centers," he said.
Some providers are offering these services at reduced rates during the pandemic or, like Massachusetts-based colocation provider Navisite, are making them free.
A few weeks ago, Navisite locked down physical access to all its colocation facilities to protect its employees and customers, so its customers now have no choice but to use the smart hands service, Chris Patterson, senior director of product management at Navisite, told us.
"In unprecedented times, when we have to take unprecedented physical security measures for health reasons, we’re waiving smart-hands service fees for all colocation customers," he said.
Making the service free now is "simply the right thing to do.” Customers can access Navisite’s support service, check on invoices, contracts, and account information via any device.
Normally, customers would use the smart-hands service when they don't want to drive to the data center to do things like “rebooting a system or swapping out tape," Patterson said.
Launching Data Centers Amid the Pandemic
Cloud security company Zscaler has been making full use of its colo providers’ smart-hands services from over the last month – including to launch new data centers in two cities.
The company connects enterprise employees with the applications they need to do their jobs. With everyone working from home, demand has been rising. On one occasion this week, for example, traffic on Zscaler’s cloud-access platform tripled overnight, Misha Kuperman, the company’s senior VP of cloud operations, told us.
Overall, traffic on the platform in China has gone up 12-fold, Seoul six times, and Tokyo more than double. One Global 100 customer recently deployed the platform to 120,000 employees over the course of three weeks, Kuperman said.
Zscaler uses colocation providers and has presence in 150 locations around the world and expanding. In fact, the company brought a brand-new data center online just this Thursday, in Vancouver, which is under a stay-at-home order for non-essential services.
Zscaler is considered an essential service. "We support very large enterprises, hospital systems, governments, schools. We're considered critical infrastructure,” Kuperman said “And sometimes for new deployments we do send people in.”
But it has reduced the amount of physical data center visits during the crisis, leaning more heavily on smart-hands services. Spinning up the new Vancouver data center didn't require any visits by Zscaler employees.
"It was all done remotely with the support of the data center provider, with all our folks being continents away, or three to four hours by plane away," Kuperman said.
In early March, Zscaler opened a new data center in Milan, which was already in the throes of the epidemic. Despite the lockdown there, the launch went without a hitch, he said. The new data center is already one of the company's busiest sites traffic wise.
Zscaler works with a variety of different data center providers, and so far there have been no disruptions. "They've all kept their services up and running," Kuperman said. "We haven't had any issues with response time or people being unavailable."
Remote (Almost) Everything
Colocation customers have long wanted quicker and easier options for managing their infrastructure. Being able to get reports and place support orders is just the tip of the iceberg.
With the pandemic, demand for more remote-access tools is accelerating. Colocation providers that had started work on these tools earlier should now have an easier time meeting their clients’ needs.
QTS Realty Trust, for example, began working on its service delivery platform four years ago. The company says it has more 7 million of square feet of data center space in the US and Europe.
The initial idea behind the platform was to give customers information about their environments, QTS's CTO of products, Brent Bensten, told DCK.
"But what they actually wanted was a platform with all the components of their colocation environments, all the way up to high-level interaction for bandwidth, cross-connect, and access to cloud," he said.
They wanted it via web browser, via smart phone, and the most advanced customers also wanted API access, so they could programmatically connect into the system.
QTS now offers all that functionality, he said, claiming the platform had 17,000 active users as of the end of last year, representing about 1,200 client organizations.
"More than 50 percent of our customers were using the platform every day prior to COVID," he said.
As the pandemic hit, QTS continued to allow some customers into their data centers in areas that aren't under lockdown, but overall, there's been a big shift to the online platform.
As of Wednesday, April 1, the company saw a 40 percent reduction in physical visits to its sites across its entire footprint.
For example, one major media customer saw a spike in its data center workload because of the combination of employees connecting from home and the heavy demands of the news cycle. That quickly affected their infrastructure, Bensten said.
"They had three cabinets that were hot. In the past, that customer would have had to enter their space." Now, they saw the problem with real-time power analytics, saw that they had available capacity in other cabinets, and swung capacity in real-time to the other cabinets – all without entering the data center.
There are still cases – such as with power and cooling – when a QTS employee might need to approve a change or even access equipment physically, he said.
But other functionality is available to customers for direct access.
Physical security monitoring, however, can be done fully remotely. If customers have security cameras with pan, tilt and zoom controls, for example, they control them remotely.
If someone must enter a customer’s space in the data center, the customer can remotely grant access to an approved person using QTS’s biometric readers (including retina and fingerprint scanners) and number pads.
Customers may have switches and routers under their control, with both read and write access to provision and deprovision equipment. They can make cloud-connectivity changes, such as adding or removing private links to Amazon Web Services.
"We want our customers to be able to do anything they want to do, from anywhere they want to be," Bensten said.