Explaining Tiers

Explaining the Uptime Institute’s Tier Classification System

An abbreviated version of this column was written for Data Center Knowledge in response to an interview with AFCOM Denver Chapter President Hector Diaz, on September 11, 2014.

Uptime Institute’s Tier Classification System for data centers is approaching the two decade mark. Since its creation in the mid-1990s, the system has evolved from a shared industry terminology into the global standard for third-party validation of data center critical infrastructure.

Over the years, some industry pundits have expressed frustration with the Tier System for being confusing. In many cases these writers have misrepresented the purpose and purview of the program.

Invariably, these authors and interview subjects have never been involved with a Tier Certification project. Typically, the commentator’s understanding of the Tiers is entirely secondhand and ten years out of date.

Anyone in the industry who knew our late founder Ken Brill knows the Institute doesn’t shy away from rigorous debate. And we happily engage in substantive discussions about the Tiers program with clients and interested parties. Unfortunately, many of the public commentators vaguely naysaying about the Tiers are so grossly uninformed that debate isn’t possible.

And yet, when a commentator manages “1 million square feet of data center space for a large multinational enterprise” and represents a respected organization like AFCOM, we feel the need to respond.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain what the Tiers look like today, illustrate how Tier Certification works, list some companies that have invested in Tier Certification and offer Uptime Institute’s vision for the future.

What are the Tiers?
Uptime Institute created the standard Tier Classification System to consistently evaluate various data center facilities in terms of potential site infrastructure performance, or uptime. The below is a summary and please see Tier Standard: Topology and accompanying Accredited Tier Designer Technical Papers.

The Tiers (I-IV) are progressive; each Tier incorporates the requirements of all the lower Tiers.

Tier I: Basic Capacity A Tier I data center provides dedicated site infrastructure to support information technology beyond an office setting. Tier I infrastructure includes a dedicated space for IT systems; an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to filter power spikes, sags, and momentary outages; dedicated cooling equipment that won’t get shut down at the end of normal office hours; and an engine generator to protect IT functions from extended power outages.

Tier II: Redundant Capacity Components Tier II facilities include redundant critical power and cooling components to provide select maintenance opportunities and an increased margin of safety against IT process disruptions that would result from site infrastructure equipment failures. The redundant components include power and cooling equipment such as UPS modules, chillers or pumps, and engine generators.

Tier III: Concurrently Maintainable A Tier III data center requires no shutdowns for equipment replacement and maintenance. A redundant delivery path for power and cooling is added to the redundant critical components of Tier II so that each and every component needed to support the IT processing environment can be shut down and maintained without impact on the IT operation.

Tier IV: Fault Tolerance Tier IV site infrastructure builds on Tier III, adding the concept of Fault Tolerance to the site infrastructure topology. Fault Tolerance means that when individual equipment failures or distribution path interruptions occur, the effects of the events are stopped short of the IT operations.

Data center infrastructure costs and operational complexities increase with Tier Level, and it is up to the data center owner to determine the Tier Level that fits his or her business’s need. A Tier IV solution is not “better” than a Tier II solution. The data center infrastructure needs to match the business application, otherwise companies can overinvest or take on too much risk.

Uptime Institute recognizes that many data center designs are custom endeavors, with complex design elements and multiple technology choices. As such, the Tier Classification System does not prescribe specific technology or design criteria beyond those stated above. It is up to the data center owner to meet those criteria in a method that fits his or her infrastructure goals.

Uptime Institute removed reference to “expected downtime per year” from the Tier Standard in 2009. The current Tier Standard does not assign availability predictions to Tier Levels. This change was due to a maturation of the industry, and understanding that operations behaviors can have a larger impact on site availability than the physical infrastructure.

If the Tier Classification system still seems unclear at this point, please take a deep breath and re-read the section above. If you’re not feeling too confused, let’s move on…

Tier Certification
Now that we have a clear understanding of the Tier Standard, let’s discuss Certification.

The Tier Certification process typically starts with a company deploying new data center capacity. The data center owner defines a need to achieve a specific Tier Level to match a business demand.

Data center owners turn to Uptime Institute for an unbiased, vendor neutral benchmarking system, to ensure that data center designers, contractors and service providers are delivering against their requirements and expectations.

Tier Certification is a performance based evaluation of a data center’s specific infrastructure, and not a checklist or cookbook. Uptime Institute is the only organization permitted to Certify data centers against the Tier Classification System. Uptime Institute does not design, build or operate data centers. Our only role is to evaluate site infrastructure, operations and strategy.

The first step in a Tier Certification process is a Tier Certification of Design Documents (TCDD). Uptime Institute Consultants review 100% of the design documents, ensuring each subsystem among electrical, mechanical, monitoring, and automation meet the fundamental concepts and there are no weak links in the chain. Uptime Institute then provides a report to the owner with the Tier deficiencies. Uptime Institute conducts a compliance review of the revised drawings, and then awards a TCDD letter and foil if the design meets the criteria.

Uptime Institute has conducted over 400 TCDDs, reviewing the most sophisticated data center designs from around the world. As you might imagine, we’ve learned a few things from that process. One of the lessons is that some companies would achieve a TCDD, and walk away from following through on Facility Certification for any number of reasons. Some organizations were willfully misrepresenting the Tier Certification, using a design foil to market a site that was not physically tested to that standard.

The TCDD was never supposed to be a final stage in a certification process, but rather a checkpoint for companies to demonstrate that the first portion of the capital project met requirements. Uptime Institute found that stranded Design Certifications were detrimental to the integrity of the Tier Certification program. In response, Uptime Institute has implemented an expiration date on TCDDs. All Tier Certification of Design Documents awards issued after 1 January 2014 will expire two years after the award date.

Data center owners use the Tier Certification process to hold the project teams accountable, and to ensure that the site performs as it was designed. Which brings us to the next phase in a Tier Certification process: Tier Certification of Constructed Facility (TCCF).

During a TCCF, a team of Uptime Institute consultants conducts a site visit, identifying discrepancies between the design drawings and installed equipment. Our consultants observe tests and demonstrations to prove Tier compliance. Fundamentally, this is the value of the Tier Certification, finding these blind spots and weak points in the chain. When the data center owner addresses the deficiencies, Uptime Institute awards the TCCF letter, foil and plaque.

Tier Certification Clients
Does the industry find value in this process? The clearest proof is the list of companies investing in Tier Certification. It is easy to claim Tier compliance and a wholly different matter to lay your solution open to a rigorous review by Uptime Institute. There are more Certifications underway at this moment than at any other point in the 20-year history of the Tiers.

Look at adoption among the telecommunications companies, colocation providers and data center developers: Digital Realty, Compass Data Centers, CenturyLink, and Switch. We have been pleased to impress each and every one of those companies with our dedication to quality and thoroughness, because we understand all that is on the line for them and their clients.

As the IT industry moves further into the cloud and IaaS mode of IT service delivery, the end user has less control over the data center infrastructure than ever before. Tiers and Operational Sustainability provide third-party assurance, on a comprehensive level, that the underlying data center infrastructure is designed and operated to the customer’s performance requirements.

Increasingly, enterprise companies are stipulating Tier Certification in RFPs to data center service providers. If you want to be competitive, unsubstantiated marketing claims are not sufficient.

Here is the full list of Tier Certification awards.

Beyond Tiers: Operations
As mentioned previously, Uptime Institute recognizes the huge role operations plays in keeping data center services available. To that end, Uptime Institute developed a data center facilities management guideline in 2010 (Tier Standard: Operational Sustainability) and certifies data center operations. This is a site-specific scorecard and benchmarking of a facilities management team’s processes, with an on-site visit and detailed report.

For companies with existing sites, or for whatever reason have not chosen to certify data center facilities against Tiers, the operations team can be certified under the Management & Operations (M&O) Stamp of Approval.

For the purposes of an M&O Stamp of Approval, the client and Uptime Institute work together to assess the selected site(s) against the M&O criteria. The criteria was drawn from Uptime Institute’s Tier Standard: Operational Sustainability, and then was vetted through a Coalition composed of key stakeholders in the enterprise owner, outsourced operations, and multi-tenant industry segments. This was to verify M&O’s compatibility with a variety of management solutions and across multiple computing environments.

The key areas reviewed, observed, and validated include:

-Staffing and Organization (on-staffing levels, qualifications, and skill mix)
-Training and Professional Development Assessment
-Preventative Maintenance Program and Processes
-Operating Conditions and Housekeeping
-Planning, Management, and Coordination practices and resources.

Please refer to Tier Standard: Operational Sustainability for full criteria.

By covering these essential areas, a management team can operate a site to its full uptime potential, obtain maximum leverage of the installed infrastructure/design and improve the efficacy of operations,.

The Path Forward?
In addition to the certifications listed above, Uptime Institute is delivering and developing further services for the IT industry around corporate governance and IT resource efficiency. As we bring those services to market, we will commit to being more present in the public forum.

With further education in the market, we hope to engage in substantive debates about our processes and approach, rather than defending claims from individuals with incorrect or incomplete knowledge of the Tiers program.
Fundamentally, it is our responsibility to better explain our approach and intellectual property. We owe it to our hundreds of clients who have invested in Tiers Certification.

Bio: Matt Stansberry has researched the convergence of technology, facility management and energy issues in the data center for over a decade. Since January 2011, he is Director of Content and Publications at Uptime Institute.