Building Your First Data Center

I am going to be doing a series of articles about Building Your First Data Center. Every couple days I will cover different elements of the choices you will need to make. This is an important topic that every startup will be faced with, although likely is preceded by the question, “Should I lease or should I buy?” And this obviously means that you have already answered the question before this which is, “Can my application live in the cloud?”, a question I will answer at another time. 

Managed & Leased vs. Self-Maintained & Owned
This is a big decision for a startup as one carries significantly more cash and responsibilities than the other. So I think there are two important questions you need to ask:

  1. Do you have someone already on your staff that knows how to manage and setup equipment like Firewalls, Load Balancers, Switches and VLANs, Virtualization, Databases, etc?
  2. Do you have a bit of cash available to spend right now, or is cash strapped and you are more comfortable spending a lot more later over time than dumping a lot down right now?

If you answered No to the first question, then you need to assume you will need an additional headcount that will run you easily around $100k (higher or lower based on your specific market). If you answered Yes, than thats great, but does that resource have the time to do it. I often see startups that have that one super genius that knows everything, but he never has time to do everything. You are likely not in the business of maintaining a data center, and their time is generally better spent on the core product offering. But if you do have someone and they have the time, then great! It’s not rocket science and most vendors you work with will help you do your initial setup, but you need someone on the other end of a phone that will be able to do the things they are being told and troubleshoot the problems that might arise.

For the second question I’m sure the natural retort is “How much money are we talking?” Well, its hard to say. If you are really a small startup, you could probably get away with three to four servers and one firewall and one load balancer with a good service plan so if things break you get same day repairs. But if you are not brand new and have people relying on your uptime, then you need to be able to provide high availability for everything. That means dual firewalls, dual load balancers, dual database servers, dual application servers and possibly dual web servers (depending on your architecture). You can slim down the servers a little by doing virtualization with mixed instances, but this only gets you a little bit of savings. I refrain from posting prices here, and instead will cover options in subsequent posts and turn it around and say, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” If money is that tight that its data center vs. head count, then get the head count, it will pay off more today.

So if I have discouraged you from building your own, than it is probably the right decision. Companies like Rackspace and MediaTemple have made very big business out of managing the datacenter and the expenses for you, and offer some great custom solutions for you at a reasonable monthly rate.

If you are ready to build your first data center, then GREAT! Let’s do it! It’s fun, you get lots of cool new toys and something you can take investors and CEOs on a tour of that looks super cool. Some people say your data center will define you as a true technology company. I’m not sure about that, but it definitely serves a very important purpose.

Stay tuned for my next post on Colocation coming soon.

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