Published: April 30, 2020


Planning and preparedness are part of a datacenter provider's DNA. Providers have calculated responses for floods, fires, power outages, tornados, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. However, few anticipated the ongoing global pandemic we are now experiencing. Even so, most have successfully minimized the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on their business, at least for the short-term. As the pandemic continues, datacenter providers are quickly adapting protocols and procedures to accommodate what will likely become a 'new normal' for the foreseeable future.

The 451 Take

As part of 451 Research's ongoing coverage of the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, we thought it would be interesting to reach out to a number of our datacenter provider contacts to see what they are learning from all this, and how they're adapting, or even innovating, in response to the current challenges. As one might expect, the primary focus for these providers hasn't changed much; keep the datacenters online and keep serving the customers. To accomplish that, and to ensure a continued stream of new revenues, many have already started getting creative.

The datacenter industry, as a piece of the world's critical infrastructure, is a long game. Sales cycles are known to take months, and sometimes much longer (usually tied to how large the deal is), and so the true effect of all this likely won't be seen for several quarters. Lower-than-projected numbers in Q4 2020, or even Q1 2021, shouldn't be a surprise to anyone in this industry; however, we hope small changes and adaptations will help to soften the blow.

VR and Video-based Tours 

One point we've heard universally from providers is that the sale process for new customers has ground to a halt. Datacenter sales staff are accustomed to in-person meetings, and it is extremely common for the sales process to include datacenter tours. Customers simply want to know what they're buying and who they're buying it from. As the quarantine days have turned into weeks, and weeks into months, datacenter providers have had to get creative with this process to ensure new revenue will continue to flow. As one might guess, we've heard a wide range of ideas with varying degrees of sophistication from providers big and small. For example, some providers we spoke with are giving datacenter tours by simply carrying a phone or tablet through the datacenter while video conferencing with the prospect.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, however, a handful of providers we spoke with had already started developing virtual reality (VR) walkthroughs of their datacenters. The initial intent of the VR videos was more of a marketing/tradeshow attention grabber; however, in light of the new 'safer at home' initiatives across the world, they suddenly have new purpose. Potential customers can don VR headsets, or simply use their smartphones or computers, to tour the datacenter at their own pace, and focus on whatever interests to them. We've had the opportunity to see a few of these over the years, and the experience is actually fairly useful. What will be interesting to see, however, is if datacenter providers are actually able to close deals, or if tactics like this just allow them to stay engaged with potential customers while we all wait for travel bans to be lifted.

Increased Smart Hands Use

Although not talked about much these days, two common services that datacenter providers offer to their clients are remote hands and smart hands. While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, the distinction between the two lies in the complexity of the work and the level of expertise being provided. Remote hands typically implies that the datacenter's technician can accomplish physical tasks for the customer, tasks such as racking and cabling servers and switches, rebooting gear by pressing the power button or removing power, or inserting some sort of media into a device. Smart hands takes this notion a step further and implies that the datacenter's technicians can perform more technical tasks, such as logging into the various equipment (assuming they have the appropriate credentials), installing/uninstalling applications or patches.

These services are rarely discussed much anymore because they're considered more or less mandatory for providers to offer. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent global lockdowns, we're seeing providers shine a light on the value of these services – especially as a few providers have suspended all customer access to their facilities. Rather than have a customer's technicians coming in and out of the datacenter, datacenter providers have been encouraging their customers to let them do the work, via their smart hands workforce. We've seen this play out in a couple of different ways. For providers that offer it as a free service, we've seen providers doing extra education with their customer bases on how to leverage it. For those providers that charge for the service, some are incentivizing their customers by giving the service away for a limited time or offering additional free 'tickets' for the service.

However, delivering remote and smart hands support can be challenging for datacenter providers during a pandemic. Just as remote and smart hands requests begin to increase, some providers are limiting their onsite staff to a minimum to protect employees.

Worker and Client Separation Protocols

As great as remote and smart hands services can be, they have some obvious limitations. A datacenter's technician can't be expected to have an intimate understanding of the inner workings of each and every piece of software on every server in the datacenter or the configuration of every router in the datacenter, for example (this is, however, an excellent argument for a managed service approach, where the technician would know all these things). In that sense, having a smart hands technician try to sort out an issue could be a liability. There are also questions of compliance and security when a non-company employee is accessing a company asset. At the end of the day, there is still a need for customers to enter the datacenter yet hopefully less so due to remote and smart hands products.

In response to this need, we've seen datacenter providers roll out some interesting measures to ensure that customers can maintain proper physical distancing from datacenter employees and other datacenter customers. For smaller facilities, some providers are simply limiting the number of customers allowed to enter the building at a time. Essentially, customers must call ahead and reserve a spot on the schedule. For larger datacenters, providers are taking into account where one company's infrastructure is in relation to another. As an example, two customers in two separate data halls, or two customers whose infrastructure is on opposing ends of a data hall, might be able to be in the datacenter at the same time, but customers whose infrastructure sits next to each other will need to wait until the area is vacant in order to enter. Similarly, these providers are spacing out when the customers are to arrive at the datacenter, hopefully minimizing any passing in hallways that may take place. For points of extended maintenance, where a technician may need to be in the datacenter for many hours, this obviously can create challenges for providers.

Another interesting protocol we heard about in polling various providers was that of emergency building sanitation. One provider we spoke with that has a datacenter in a major US metro stated that one of their customer's technicians unfortunately ended up testing positive for the coronavirus. Before allowing more customers into the datacenter, the provider enacted measures to clean the facility thoroughly. The datacenter's camera systems allowed the provider to see where the technician had been, enabling the cleaning crew to focus on very specific areas in addition to all the common areas.

Datacenter providers are also adjusting access protocols. In some cases, customer and visitors are now subject to certain health related pre-screening questions or having their temperature taken before being granted access to the facilities. Many datacenter providers are now requiring staff and customers to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), such as facemasks, while inside the facility. However, the global shortage of PPE has made it difficult for providers to supply employees and customers with these precautionary and preventative controls. Datacenter providers are also modifying cleaning protocols to frequently disinfect heavily used common areas as well as touch screens, touch pads and biometric authentication systems.
Dan Thompson
Research Director - MTDC

As a Research Director for 451 Research, Dan Thompson provides insight into the Multi-Tenant Datacenter (MTDC) market space. Dan is particularly focused on MTDCs that are trying to move up the stack to offer additional services beyond colocation and connectivity. These services may include disaster recovery, security, various forms of cloud and other managed services. 

Jeremy Korn
Research Associate

Jeremy Korn is a Research Associate at 451 Research. He graduated from Brown University with a BA in Biology and East Asian Studies and received a MA in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, where he employed quantitative and qualitative methodologies to study the Chinese film industry.

Aaron Sherrill
Senior Analyst

Aaron Sherrill is a Senior Analyst for 451 Research covering emerging trends, innovation and disruption in the Managed Services and Managed Security Services sectors. Aaron has 20+ years of experience across several industries including serving in IT management for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Want to read more? Request a trial now.