4D: Keeping the lights on

4D: Keeping the lights on

27 May 2021 | Natalie Bannerman

Cover

4D Data Centres, in the words of its CEO Jack Bedell-Pearce, is “one of the fastest growing independent data centres in the UK”.

Its core business comprises colocation services and the company has two physical data centres in the southeast of the country, one in Byfleet, close to Weybridge and the other just north of Gatwick airport.

In addition to its colocation offering, 4D is also an internet service provider delivering internet connectivity and broadband for businesses.
“In the last year we’ve started to really specialise in HPC colocation, which is high-performance compute that involves doing some really exciting stuff as far as power delivery and cooling is concerned,” says Bedell-Pearce.

Like so many in the space, Covid-19 forced a step-change in operations for 4D and its customers. For Bedell-Pearce in the UK, the first, second and third lockdowns were very different experiences.

“In the first lockdown, nobody really wanted to do anything as far as colocation was concerned because colocation is the physical movement of servers from one place to another. So due to lockdown and the restrictions that came with it everyone wanted to stop any kind of change management.”

What they also experienced from some of their clients who work on the managed service provider and the IT support side of things was a group of small and medium-sized businesses that didn’t have the infrastructure in place and were hosting their servers on-premise in the office.

Bedell-Pearce says: “They discovered very quickly that they didn’t have the bandwidth coming from the office to be able to work from home in a productive way. So, there was a bit of a scramble from those types of businesses, either to migrate very quickly from physical servers and office into the cloud or trying to move their servers into a data centre like ours.”

Over the last nine months, however, he has witnessed many businesses looking at their IT infrastructure and planning the future, and says, “we’re expecting that to change during Q2 of this year, as people really start to kind of pay down that technical debt.”

Customers aside, the inability to manage and operate physical infrastructure like data centres would surely come with its own share of issues during this time, suggesting that increased virtualisation and automation could be the solution. But 4D was already prepared.

“There have been events in the not so distant past that have actually prepared us extremely well for this pandemic. The first one was the swine flu outbreak in 2009, and organisations whose business model is business continuity, disaster recovery, managing risk – like us – took swine flu really seriously back in 2009. We didn’t have a pandemic recovery plan in place before that, we did have one straight off after that.”

The game plan sat and gathered dust up until 2020, when it was finally put into action. So, with regards to things like face masks, social distancing, hand washing and the booking of slots for customers, 4D already knew what to do.

Overall, the pandemic has demonstrated that the UK data centre sector is very agile. “I think we can immodestly say we’ve done a very good job over the last year of meeting that demand, both from a bandwidth perspective and also a physical capacity perspective in terms of data storage and compute power.”

This in turn will fuel an “ongoing trend of businesses investing in IT infrastructure, investing in data centres”, adds Bedell-Pearce.
In addition, from a government perspective he says that they are “really sitting up and taking notice of our sector and realising how critical we are to the smooth running of the economy if we didn’t have that capacity in place”.

On the topic of artificial intelligence and its potential to impact the data centre market, Bedell-Pearce does not believe it is going to be a big disruptor to 4D’s business model.

“We’re certainly already seeing companies that are deploying AI in a large way entering into our data centres and they are bringing with them some unique challenges,” he says.

“When I talked earlier about the HPC colocation, quite a few of those customers are companies that are specifically running machine learning systems, primarily aimed at things like healthcare and logistics – those are two big areas that are driving that kind of technology at the moment.”

As for the Internet of Things, Bedell-Pearce sees it as a “bit of a slow burner”, but with the increasing number of chips being implemented into more appliances, as well as in the industrial space, “we still see that happening in data centres as well as, I think, the drive for more information around data, cooling, power or bandwidth – everything you can put a sensor on, we’re putting a sensor on.”

5G, however, is more of an enabling tech as far as Bedell-Pearce is concerned. “It’s certainly going to enable the continued growth and expansion of IoT,” he explains. “I think what it will also do is continue to push the trend of edge computing and edge data centres a lot faster, and certainly companies that rely on low latency compute.”

Many of the security concerns that surround the cloud typically come down to public cloud versus private cloud. Whatever cloud type you are using, you still have those attack vectors of well-secured new user accounts and questions around whether or not the application programming interfaces are secure. But you also can’t forget the basics and they aren’t exclusive to cloud.

“It really comes back to, are you looking at things like two factor authentication, are you protecting your cloud solutions, your physical hardware behind managed firewalls, are you using a VPN to encrypt your data? If you’re doing all of those things, it doesn’t really matter what platform you’re on.”

The biggest risk factor, according to Bedell-Pearce, is in the physical infrastructure side of things. “So, if you’ve got a lot of sensitive data that’s being stored in the cloud, where is the cloud, where is the actual physical infrastructure? Because not all data centres are the same.”

Hybrid and multi-cloud convergence as the new normal? The jury’s out on that one, says Bedell-Pearce.
“Companies are becoming much more aware of the potential threat of vendor lock-in both from a security point of view but also from a financial and operational view,” he says.

“If you keep all of your eggs in one basket and AWS, for example, goes down, then you’re in trouble. Equally, if AWS gets spun off from the wider housing group and they decide to up their prices, then that again is a potential risk factor.”

However, he does recognise that there are all kinds of challenges around moving that data off physical servers into the cloud.
“Some of them are because of legacy operating systems or legacy software which makes it difficult to physically move out into the cloud. But it’s also a case of what’s right for the business case because putting everything into the cloud isn’t always going to be the best answer.

“Sometimes you do need that extra layer of security and control, and a physical server that you own and operate is potentially still going to be a better solution than putting it into a public cloud or into a very expensive private cloud solution.”

One trend we couldn’t shy away from asking about was gaming and the growing demands it will undoubtedly place on the infrastructure side of the business if it continues on its current trend. Though for the most part the network is able to handle what is thrown at it, it’s those spikes in usage that are the most telling – gaming is one of those things.

“So far we haven’t really been properly put to the test because we’ve never got even close to the capacity of what we can provide. But the thing that really puts us to test are major gaming releases or major updates to existing games,” Bedell-Pearce explains. “Then we see some serious traffic.” Examples of such games include Fortnite and Call of Duty, but as far as day-to-day gaming is concerned, Bedell-Pearce says it doesn’t come close, doesn’t even touch the edges of the network.

As both a colocation provider and ISP, 4D is an approved supplier of the Gigabit Voucher Scheme, a £67 million UK fund that aims to provide vouchers worth up to £3,000 for businesses to help with the costs of connecting to full fibre broadband.

Speaking on the scheme, Bedell-Pearce very candidly shares that, “we haven’t actually seen a huge benefit ourselves out of it.” One of the reasons for this, he says, is that some of the restrictions placed on eligibility around the scheme “run counterintuitive to the type of end users who are going to potentially want to pick it up”.

According to the rules, you are ineligible for the scheme if you already have anything even remotely close to gigabit internet connectivity coming into your building, regardless of whether or not you actually have a specific provider in the building.

“So, companies that really need a gig worth of data already have that fibre going into their building, companies that don’t need a gig of data typically will be more than comfortable with a Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) or Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) type of connection,” he says.

One of the biggest contributing factors to 4D’s sustainable business practices is scale.
“By virtue of the fact that we are doing things on such a significant scale, we typically win on economies of scale and efficiency,” he adds.
The direction for the business in the near future boils down to “meeting the demand” of customers, which Bedell-Pearce describes as a “coiled spring”.

“They know that there’s that demand that’s out there. The economy is ready to bounce back and as we go into the summer, I think that we will see the British economy significantly improve and a lot of business confidence will come back. So, our focus is going to be meeting that demand, and doing what we’ve done throughout the pandemic, which is keeping the lights on.”