Much has been written about the datacenter site selection process, as it is the most important phase in the life of any mission critical project. I’ve always wanted to share more about what it’s really like to go to the far reaches of the earth in search of that one perfect slice of datacenter heaven that we’re all seeking. Recently I’ve had one of my more memorable site selection trips and I wanted to share it with you.
As I always say, there are many things you can change about an existing datacenter – you can alter the next phase design, you can always work to improve the efficiency numbers, you can choose alternate vendors for most electrical and mechanical systems. But there is one thing you cannot change, and that is the site that you’ve selected. In other words, it’s hard to pick ‘em up and move ‘em once they’re built.
That is why it is muy importante that you get it right the first time. It’s such a huge financial commitment that you have one chance at it or it might be your last site selection. You need to pick the right piece of dirt, with the right size for growth, at the right price, in the right utility district, with adequate amounts and qualities of energy, fiber, water, sewer, with the right neighbors, the right political landscape, the right permitting assurances, and 40 other factors all aligned as close to perfectly as possible.
It all sounds like a tidy checklist that can be filled out and validated, doesn’t it? I wish it were that straightforward. From my experience there’s so much more to it than that. There’s the establishment of relationships to ensure project success. The kissing of babies. The drinking of the local beer, the eating of the local delicacies. The building of trust between you and your new prospective suppliers and business partners. In my opinion these relationships end up being far more important factors in the success of a datacenter project than all other things combined. Do it right and you’ll have a community of people that are cheering you on, or disregard the relationships and face headwinds for the entire lifetime of your datacenter.
In order to establish these relationships, there’s no substitute for spending time in the community and immersing yourself in the local culture. Boots on the ground, literally. This is especially important in radically different locales outside the USA. Learn enough of the local language to get by (“please”, “thank you”, “good morning/evening”, “do you speak English” and ability to count to 10 will get you amazingly far).
Once in awhile, actually more often than not, I have such extraordinary experiences on these site selection trips that I think it bears sharing.
It started before I had even arrived, on the long international flight. A colleague of mine has taught me many tips and tricks, and one of them is to try to be the last one to board and to visit the ticket counter just before heading down the ramp to ask if there’s 2 or 3 seats together that aren’t assigned so that presumably you could stretch out and get some rest en route. Which I did. And which, to my surprise, the ticket agent said yes, there was a pair of seats all the way in the back which would certainly not be filled at this late date so I’d be able to settle in to them for the 10 hour flight. So I trot down the jetway, smiling at my good fortune and feeling sorry for all those poor souls who will be stranded next to sweaty strangers in center seats while I’ll be lounging in relative coach class luxury. I find my pair of seats and immediately spread out. I’m set. The flight attendant announces that the door has been closed and all electronics with an off switch…etc etc etc. This is gonna be good.
Then she appears. I see her huffing down the aisle all the way from the front. She looks like she just ran all the way through the terminal and made this flight by the skin of her teeth. She’s walking down the aisle carrying a black bag slung over her back, with a frenzied look caused by the battles she’s just endured. And I’m thinking – “no, no! What are the chances?” And of course you guessed it, she comes all the way to the back of the plane and stands there looking at me. I have a seatmate.
And as I’m asking her if I can help her stow her bag, she unzips it and out jumps her 15-pound dog. On my lap. The trip just got a lot cozier.
And it just got weirder from there.
The next morning the team arrives at the first of our prospective sites. Without being too specific about the exact location, it’s safe to say that this particular site is in what I’d call the jungle. It’s actually fairly close to the metropolitan area that we’re aiming to serve, but I’d still describe it as the jungle. All the basics have been checked out. Great power availability, awesome accessibility and physical security, water, network, sewer, land quality, it all checks out and looks very promising.
I always walk a potential site. It’s admittedly unscientific and hard to quantify, but there’s something that I get from actually walking the length and breadth of a plot of land. It just gives me a better sense of the slope, drainage, soil composition and compaction, and just an overall feel for the site.
So as is my custom, I start walking the site with other team members. This is one large piece of land, so we visit several spots that are most likely our best site targets. The first two parcels look fantastic. Then we go to the far corner of the site where one of the fiber entrances is located.
As I’m climbing a small hill, I see it but have no idea what it is. It looks like someone has left some trash. But as we get closer it appears that it is two large dirty bowls and what looks like a red cloth of some sort. Closer yet and we see that there’s a big carving knife (!!!) stuck into the ground between them. And then it becomes clear that there’s some kind of food in one bowl and there’s FRESH BLOOD ALL OVER THE KNIFE AND IN THE OTHER BOWL (!!!!!!!!).
I’m immediately and profoundly fascinated and freaked out all at the same time. I can’t help but thinking – where do we put this in our site selection spreadsheet??? We don’t have a column for the existence of sacrificial rituals. At least we didn't.
Our local guides tell us that this is a sign of an ritual performed by some of the more devout local practitioners of the ancient religion Macumba. The blood? Most likely from a chicken (hopefully), and yes – consumed by the participants. Further research shows that the ritual could be used for both positive and negative purposes – an effort to bring wealth or to punish a wrongdoer.
Nothing in my research whatsoever about it being a good or bad omen for a datacenter project. I checked.
Later over beers I was relating the story of our discovery to some colleagues at a local watering hole. They didn't know exactly what I was talking about (think Lost in Translation) and so I just showed them the picture.
Their faces turned pale and they literally did the sign of the cross in unison. Repeatedly. While spinning around and making this funny spitting sound. Not sure exactly what that means but if I was a betting man I'd say they were advising that we find another piece of land.
All in all, just another memorable site selection trip.