Small Business

Ever Heard of a Collocation Facility?


By Scott Kucirek I thought I would take this time to talk about an experience I hope nobody has to live through: changing your collocation facility. This is a place where a company places most of the expensive technical equipment that an Internet site needs to communicate with the world. They are very high-tech, have great security, and can usually provide access to as much bandwidth as required. They are, however, very expensive, often costing tens of thousands of dollars per month to rent.

So why bother using one? The key reason why a collocation facility makes sense is the pressure on all e-commerce sites to stay up and run smoothly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That may sound simple, but for a company to actually make it happen without outside help is a tall order.

JOB FOR EXPERTS. First, the company would have to continuously monitor and guard its equipment. This is a costly chore -- not to mention the difficulty of finding the right people. Second, the company has to make sure it has continuous power pulsing through its machines so the site doesn't go down. This is also very expensive and requires backup generators, which, if everything goes well, may never be used.

It was for these reasons that we realized early in our company's history that it made much better business sense to turn the dirty work over to the professionals. That way, we reasoned, we would be free to focus our energies more productively elsewhere.

After reviewing the handful of companies that provide collocation support, we went with a large and trusted company (which I will not name) that already served many of the Internet's household names. At that juncture, I thought the decisions were over. As with everything else in a startup, however, when things go too smoothly, you had better get ready for a surprise.

The system worked as advertised for the first few months -- until we started having problems. There was the time the power went out, nobody informed us, and our Internet site went down for a couple hours in the middle of the night. It might well have stayed down, too, had it not been for one of our employees, who noticed the problem and began placing calls to get the current flowing again.

WE'RE OUTTA HERE. Next came a series of galling power outages -- five of them over four months. This worried me because the promise of continuous power was one of the chief reasons we decided to use the company in the first place. Furthermore, the site was 50 miles from our headquarters, so our technical staff was burdened with a terrible commute every time they had to add equipment or fix something.

As the problems mounted, we wanted to know why the collocation facility was not living up to its advertised capability. After months of broken promises it became clear that it had taken on more work than it could handle, and that we were just too small (compared to other clients) to get attention. We decided to move on.

Knowing more about what we really needed (experience really does help), we started searching for a better solution. Once we had narrowed down our choices all over again, we went for a smaller and closer facility. We signed the contracts and expected to be in within a month. That was the easy part. The tricky bit turned out to be moving our equipment and Internet connections to the new facility while limiting the time our site would be down to just a few hours.

All was going as scheduled until we learned our telecommunication carrier was having difficulty getting us a new fast Internet connection. Days became weeks, which became months. After three months of waiting, we were finally able to get a line. Meanwhile, we had two more power outages at the old facility that cost us numerous customer registrations.

DOWN TO THE WIRE. Then we had to disassemble and rebuild a high-tech jigsaw. In the early days, we had only a couple of boxes. Now we have a complex set of machines. Imagine taking apart, moving, and reconnecting 25 home PCs and you will have some idea of what we faced. Further complicating matters was the fact that we had ordered technical equipment for the new facility based on the original move date. The delay forced us to install some of it at the old facility -- and then hook it up all over again at the new one.

All these extra delays imposed an extreme amount of additional work and stress on our technical team. But they persevered, and, finally, we were able to make a successful switch.

To date, we have had zero problems with our new facility, which has been a blessing. After our last experiences, however, we make sure to stay on top of this side of our business. Trust me, we don't want to do this again. Scott Kucirek is president and co-founder of zipRealty.com, an online real estate brokerage. The company's Internet site and online real estate agents let people complete the entire purchase or sale of a house via the Web. The company's Web site is www.zipRealty.com, and you can E-mail Scott at Scott@zipRealty.com.


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