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Data Centers Explained

What are Data Centers?

Data centers are physical facilities that organizations use to house their critical and proprietary assets. Data centers are designed to centralize an organization’s shared IT operations and equipment for the purposes of storing, processing, and disseminating applications and data. Data centers are essential to the continuity of daily operations, so their security and reliability are paramount in organizational operations. Understanding the structure and functionality of data centers can help organizations to determine which facilities have the features and scalability that will meet their current and future needs.

Modern data centers have shifted from traditional on-premises physical servers to virtual networks. Virtual networks support applications and workloads across pools of physical infrastructure and into multi-cloud environments. Data centers are designed to support business applications and services such as:

  • Productivity applications such as email
  • File-sharing
  • Data storage, management, backup and recovery
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
  • Databases
  • Big data, AI, and machine learning
  • Virtual desktops, communications and collaboration services
  • Powering online gaming

Data center design includes the following primary elements:

Facilities. The data center facility is the usable space available for IT equipment. The facility includes infrastructure to support the center’s hardware and software including power subsystems, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), cooling systems, ventilation, fire suppressions, backup generators, and external network connections. The data center facility provides 24/7 access and is designed to optimize space and to maintain environmental controls such as temperature and humidity.

Components. Core components for equipment and software for IT operations and storage of data and applications include switches, routers, firewalls, storage systems, servers, and application delivery controls.

The most widely adopted standard for data center design and infrastructure is ANSI/TIA-942. This includes ANSI/TIA-942-ready certification, which ensures compliance in one of four categories1:

  • Tier 1. Basic site infrastructure. A Tier 1 data center offers limited protection against physical events. It has single-capacity components and a single, nonredundant distribution path. 
  • Tier 2. Redundant-capacity component site infrastructure. This data center offers improved protection against physical events. It has redundant-capacity components and a single, nonredundant distribution path. 
  • Tier 3. Concurrently maintainable site infrastructure. This data center protects against virtually all physical events, providing redundant-capacity components and multiple independent distribution paths. Each component can be removed or replaced without disrupting services to end users. 
  • Tier 4. Fault-tolerant site infrastructure. This data center provides the highest levels of fault tolerance and redundancy. Redundant-capacity components and multiple independent distribution paths enable concurrent maintainability and one fault anywhere in the installation without causing downtime.

The four main types of data centers are:

Enterprise data centers, often housed on a corporate campus, which are built, owned, and operated by organizations and are optimized for their own end users.

Managed services data centers are often managed by a third part on behalf of an organization, and the organization leases the equipment and infrastructure.

Colocation data centers where an organization rents space within an offsite data center owned by others. The colocation data center hosts the infrastructure, and the organization provides and manages their own components.

Cloud data centers are off-premises data centers where data and applications are hosted by cloud services providers.

1 Cisco, 2022, “What Is a Data Center”