March 30, 2015

IT vs. Facilities: Beware of the “Streetlight Effect” in Data Center Due Diligence


While the cultural divide between IT and Facilities teams has been gradually closing, it is far from entirely gone. With respect to data center and colocation procurement, this cultural divide can, at times, undermine good decision making. In order to optimize data center planning decisions and overcome this divide, it is critical for organizations to identify and mitigate biases associated with the “Streetlight Effect”, named after the old parable:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is!” [1]

We all have a tendency to “look where the light is” and in the context of data center due diligence and cultural gaps between IT and Facilities, this “Streetlight Effect”, if unrecognized, can be quite damaging.

Facilities Streetlight Effects
For Facilities-dominated teams, streetlight effects tend to direct focus towards “back of the house” plant and infrastructure. At times, this siloed focus can result in blind spots with respect to things like IT capacity planning and white-space layout.

Without strong IT influencers that can effectively communicate space and power capacity forecasts, and more importantly the upside and downside risks to those forecasts, facilities-led processes tend to rely on static predictions that have the potential to become outdated even before lease contracts are signed.

This can result in facilities-dominated teams becoming prone to over or under purchasing or not structuring option terms appropriately. Likewise, they may neglect nuanced space planning considerations within the white space relating to things like optimal row lengths for specific network designs, containment programs for specific rack density targets, flexibility-oriented features with respect to agility in the context of refresh cycles, etc.

IT Streetlight Effects
In the case of IT-dominated teams, streetlight effects tend to direct focus towards “front of the house” white spaces. This often leads IT-dominated teams to dismiss the “back-of-the-house” plant and infrastructure as “commoditized” and not worthy of detailed inspection. This can be a dangerous bias.

Roughly 75% of the capital cost associated with data center construction is attributable to the “back-of-the-house” and those that do not carefully evaluate the quality of the engineering, equipment, construction, commissioning and operation of this “back-of-house” plant and infrastructure, do so at significant risk. There are entire segments of the colocation industry built around masking Ford Pinto engines in Cadillac chassis and pushing them on those that aren’t equipped or inclined to pop the hood.

The Fix
To mitigate these streetlight effects in data center due diligence, a few key strategies go a long way:

  1. Create Cross-Functional Teams.
    If internal skill sets and political considerations allow it, create a multi-disciplinary task-force for data center due diligence in which key personnel from Facilities and IT groups report to a common executive. Find facilities personnel who have lived through analogous construction projects and can recognize the nuances that determine quality with respect to things like a roof membrane, a chiller plant, a structural specification or a fuel-polishing system. Include senior IT personnel that have a good pulse on modern best practices in hardware, network and cable-plant design and a holistic perspective on capacity forecasting. Make all parties aware of potential observational biases and encourage open and frequent communication.
  2. Ask for Plans.
    For IT-dominated teams that may not otherwise think to do so, a first step is to sign an NDA with the provider and ask them for as much detailed information as they will provide. As-built drawings, electrical one-lines, mechanical schematics, operations procedures, arc-flash and coordination studies, commissioning reports, incident reports, change-management meeting minutes, maintenance reports, SSAE/SOC audit results, etc. are all fair game and if a provider will not provide these, be weary. The provider’s ability to provide high quality and up-to-date documentation will speak volumes about its compliance culture and customer service.
  3. Ask the Dumb Questions.
    Sit with the provider and have them walk through key engineering schematics (i.e. electrical one-lines or mechanical plans). Don’t be afraid of dumb questions – if a provider can’t explain the function and resiliency profile of their back-of-house systems in simple and intuitive terms, consider it a red flag.
  4. Ask for Optionality.
    For facilities-dominated teams, try to build as much optionality into your lease agreement as you can to account for imperfect IT capacity forecasts. Initially, try to right size your initial capacity commitment at the low end of the reasonable range and ask for contractual options to increase both space and power density independently over the lease term.
  5. Hire Good Consultants.
    Fill gaps in your procurement team with competent third party mission critical engineers and/or IT consultants. There are many great firms that are steeped in the nuances of data center facilities design, IT capacity planning and white space optimization. Many of them will assist with due diligence at very reasonable rates in the interest of building relationships for subsequent business.

Every organization, team and individual falls prey to our humanistic tendency to gravitate toward what we know best, what we understand, and what we are familiar with – our “streetlights”. With the above key strategies, IT and Facilities teams can cooperate to counteract these streetlight effects and develop integrated and accurate assessments of data center facility alternatives.


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