We speak to NEXTDC Chief Operating Officer Simon Cooper about the country’s rapidly expanding data centre sector, charting the vital role the company has played and will play into the future.
Around the world Australia may be best known for its unique landscape, stable economy and cultural mix, but there's also an exciting IT industry growing here full of ready and willing early adopters. Australia’s ICT industry has developed enormously in the last decade, something that data centre provider NEXTDC has been a big part of.
Establishing a presence
NEXTDC's sites straddle the range of Australian climates, from humid sub-tropics to semi-arid to the chilly south, with facilities in five major cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra. It has already built out around 35MW of 42MW of potential capacity across these locations, with each site and market chosen for specific reasons, and has a further 60MW-plus in the pipeline as it focuses on second-generation sites.
Brisbane, where NEXTDC’s first data centre was built, is the go-to city for national businesses to position their Asia-facing headquarters. The capital city of Canberra poses real prospects for company growth, as the federal government has increased their IT spend by $3 billion in the past two years to $10 billion, and is increasingly focussed on connecting to public and private clouds. In Melbourne, the market is growing substantially faster than anywhere else in Australia, and all the way over on the west coast, new submarine cables landing in Perth in the next few years could turn the city into a regional data hub, not to mention being the central focus for all development in the Western Australian economy.
As the company developed this national coverage it was naturally important for NEXTDC to have a strong capability in Sydney, where international players already operated data centres alongside the largest home-grown players, such as Telstra and Optus. However, as Simon Cooper, NEXTDC’s Chief Operating Officer explains, "the strategy was to get to Sydney later once our reputation and capabilities were understood, since it already had a mature market. We initially focussed on the opportunity that the rest of Australia presented."
Because of this, once NEXTDC arrived in Sydney toward the end of 2013, more than a quarter of the new data centre was contracted prior opening – NEXTDC had already established a strong customer base and brand recognition, which pulled business through and enabled NEXTDC to make rapid inroads into the competitive Sydney space.
The Australian market
Cooper joined the company in 2011 when NEXTDC was at the early start-up stage. Prior to joining he was Senior Vice President, Network & Solutions, at Tata Communications, where he got to know NEXTDC's then future founder Bevan Slattery while working together on an international submarine cable development project. When Slattery needed a COO he called Cooper because of his extensive experience in the telecommunication sector and successful delivery of multiple large infrastructure businesses.
At the time the data centre market hadn't taken off in Australia, so Cooper seized the chance. "My previous role was a global one, so I could see what was happening in North America and Europe. The cloud was coming, the enterprise was shifting and I could see where Microsoft, Google and others were going. You don't get the opportunity very often in your career to jump into something like that and shape it."
Since then the market has changed rapidly, especially with large-scale, international operators expanding massively in Sydney and turning their attention to Melbourne. "If you match Australia to its direct population it's punching well above its weight," Cooper says. "That's something Australia has always done with technology. I think it's a combination of distance and some of the cultural linkages back to Europe and the US. Also aspiration, both at the enterprise level and the individual. If you were to talk to Microsoft or Amazon, the use they see here compared to the population is quite dramatic. NEXTDC has successfully taken part in that and helped it along."
As a result the company is growing fast – its facility utilisation increased almost a third in the past year, and it’s in the midst of expanding data hall space in its first-generation Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney facilities (e.g. adding an extra 1MW in Sydney) while building three brand new data centres in national partnership with the award-winning FDC construction and fit-out company. S2 will be NEXTDC’s second data centre in Sydney, and will be operational during 2018. With an ultimate capacity of 30MW and around 8,000m2 of client space, it will be the biggest facility in the company’s nationwide network. Brisbane will see a new data centre in mid-2017, scaling up to 6MW, and in Melbourne a site of at least 25MW of capacity is also well along in its construction phase.
The sites are carefully positioned so that they're well served in terms of transport and the essential utilities of water, power and telecommunications. Buildings are designed in such a way that they're expected to be active for up to 50 years.
Energy and sustainability has been important to NEXTDC from the outset, and as an example of putting money where its mouth is, the company made its first material investment in renewable energy back in 2012, specifically a 6,000m2, 400kWpk rooftop solar array at their M1 Melbourne site. Typically this installation will generate around 500MWhr per annum, which is 100 percent consumed by the resident customers and critical infrastructure.
Connected business environment
NEXTDC data centres offer a range of connectivity services to allow their customers to connect directly to each other and to the myriad of service providers present in any of NEXTDC’s facilities and others.
In NEXTDC’s data centres customers have the option of physical (dedicated port) or virtual (shared port) connections. Cross Connects are physical cable connections within a data centre providing a dedicated connection between those two parties. Users can also connect to the AXON interconnectivity platform, from which they can provision and de-provision reliable and highly secure elastic cross-connects (EXCs) in seconds.
The physical Cross Connect product consists of either single-mode optical fibre (SMOF – single or dual core) or a Cat 6 Ethernet cable, and each is delivered by a trained NEXTDC facility technician via secure dedicated interconnect rooms, also where multiple carriers have established a point of presence. Each data centre has multiple fibre entry points (aka pits) to ensure that carriers can provide fully redundant offerings to their and NEXTDC’s customers. Diversity and redundancy is also supported within NEXTDC’s facilities through multiple paths and data hall entry points from each interconnect room.
As NEXTDC develops its second data centre in a given city, it will be bridging the physical distance between the two data centres with an expanded data centre cross connect product set, based on diverse fibre links if required, or very low cost fibre-like dedicated connections. This will allow organisations to seamlessly extend their service between data centres, and give customers of either facility secure access to the other.
NEXTDC also operates its own private Enterprise LAN supporting the many IT-related services needed to run a large data centre business, which is deployed with the support of their local partner Comlinx based upon technology from the global networking vendor Juniper Networks.
What sets them apart
NEXTDC has already forged very strong relationships with the likes of Telstra, Fujitsu, CenturyLink, and Optus amongst many other successful complex solution providers. "For example, during the first 12 months of our Optus partnership they increased their focus on cloud solutions rather than building data centres, instead making use of ours," Cooper adds.
The on-the-ground expertise provided by NEXTDC’s engineering, facility and project management teams is a fundamental point of difference to their competitors. NEXTDC’s people are designing, testing, monitoring and tuning these data centres, and a key area of strength that NEXTDC prides itself on is working directly with customers.
"We've got highly trained members of our team on-site 24/7, ready and able to unbox any customer equipment sent to us, install it in racks, connect it, power it up, and hand it over remotely so that the customer never needs to come to the site or to spend money on sending others to the site if they so choose. At the other end of the spectrum, if it suites, once individuals have been inducted into the site they can show up 24/7 and we don't need to get in their way."
The data centres are fitted with business lounges for customer staff to have somewhere comfortable to relax and recharge at any hour of the day or night, alongside quiet-rooms, meeting rooms, private office space and everything you might expect in a client-focussed office environment, but not so much in a large-scale data centre.
None of NEXTDC’s core data centre staff are outsourced, everyone from the engineering team all the way through to customer service representatives are on the payroll. "The person you see when you walk through the front door might at first appear to be a security guard there to check you out, but they're really not,” says Cooper. “They're primarily there to help and assist, a concierge if you will, and most importantly are first and foremost there to say ‘Hi, I can see you're supposed to be here and I can see you have booked some NEXTDC remote hands support, how can I help?’"
To be able to do this the company has put a very strong focus on in-house training programmes, including shadowing across all departments for technical engineers, sales staff and customer help desks. Employees might initially join part time or be doing night shifts to support themselves while studying, for instance, and this enables them to become part of the team and the culture as they move deeper into the organisation.
“Having an engaged workforce is vital to achieving our strategic objectives,” continues Cooper. “NEXTDC’s success is all about teamwork, and a workplace that promotes diversity and fosters a culture that recognises and celebrates our success as a team.”
NEXTDC is also willing to rotate staff around the country, so employees get a sense of how the data centres operate nationally. "It might not feel like the three or four-person team running the Brisbane date centre is very deep," Cooper explains, "but in fact the entire national team supporting our five data centres know how each other operate, and they are all there for each other as and when required."
The strength of NEXTDC’s company culture and business success has allowed it pursue certification for important industry standards, among them those set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This independent, non-governmental organisation seeks to ensure best practice in terms of safety, quality and compliance across pretty much every industry. NEXTDC has achieved ISO certifications for quality management, environmental management, and information security.
Specifically in the data centre industry, NEXTDC was just one of 15 organisations around the world to win a Brill Award for Efficient IT in 2015, thanks to its innovative engineering and unique deployment of German power-system specialist Piller’s isolated-parallel bus, which also played a part in NEXTDC winning the 2014 DatacenterDynamics APAC Award for Innovation in the Mega-Data Centre. To prove the resilience of its facilities NEXTDC has also attained Tier III certifications from the Uptime Institute, a global advisory body that works to improve the performance and efficiency of IT companies.
Cooper says these certifications, partnerships, and relationships with customers are what has differentiated NEXTDC from competitors and enabled it to grow so quickly. For now, Cooper is concentrating on the existing construction programme, but given the potential of fast-growing cities across Australia and beyond, he is not ruling out further expansion.