Data Center Tiers Explained: The Role of The Uptime Institute

Data pathways
Data pathways

A data center is a purpose-built facility housing computer systems, and associated storage and telecommunication components. It should feature redundant or backup modules, and own its own independent infrastructure. This includes power supply, data communications connections, environmental controls (air conditioning and fire suppression) and appropriate security devices.

Modern data centers are large, industrial-size operations that may consume as much electricity as the average small town. They exist to serve their customers by storing and protecting their data. We demystify data standards here through a detailed discussion of data center tiers. But first, we need to set the stage by exploring the broader role of colocation and cloud storage centers.

Data Centers’ Role in the Evolution of Computing

Data centers appeared in the 1940’s to house large, main frame computers, requiring special environments including security arrangements, cooling, raised floors, and cable trays. After microcomputers sprouted everywhere in business, users began acquiring servers to share facilities. Networking evolved and placed these servers in special rooms.

These ‘data centers’, for this is what they were in their infancy boomed during the 1997 to 2000 dot-com bubble. Companies began building very large facilities to provide commercial clients with a wide range of solutions. Private data centers peaked early, then they began to disappear in the face of special requirements for ‘cloud computing’.

These special requirements are security, availability, environmental impact and adherence to standards in an increasingly challenging environment. The Telecommunication Industry Association accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) formed in 1988, and began to lay down standards to regulate these things. Nowadays, a modern data center has come a long way from a 1980’s main-frame room designed on the fly.

Basic Requirements for Modern Data Centers

Colocation and cloud-storage centers must enable businesses to meet their stated goals of data reliability and safety. They must provide a seamless service allowing clients to continue operating, even during extreme weather events. Therefore, they must ensure high standards of integrity and functionality.

This involves redundancy of mechanical cooling and power systems serving the data center along with fiber optic cables. However this assumes rigorous design and management standards. This is not as common as the industry would have its customers expect.

Not all data centers are as good, especially to the extent that you can rely on them to be there when you need them. The harshening effects of climate change and extreme weather events add an overburden of concern we can no longer deny. We should also no longer accept qualitative promises of ‘very robust’ and ‘extremely unlikely to fail’. Instead, we should insist on quantitative standards we can use to compare value across the industry.

Telecommunication Industry Association Standards

The Telecommunication Industry Association (TIA) recognized the need for an industry standard in 2005. That was the year it published its ANSI/TIA-942, Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard for Data Centers. This defined four levels of data centers in a thorough, quantifiable manner. The most recent update appeared in 2017. Other, related TIA standards include:

  • TIA-568-C (Telecommunications Cabling Standards, used by nearly all voice, video and data networks).
  • TIA-569-B (Commercial Building Standards for Telecommunications Pathways and Spaces)
  • TIA-607-B (Commercial Grounding – Earthing – Standards)
  • TIA-598-C (Fiber Optic Color-Coding)     
  • TIA-222-G (Structural Standard for Antenna Supporting Structures and Antennas)
  • TIA-602-A (Data Transmission Systems and Equipment, standardizing the common basic Hayes command set)
  • TIA-102 – (Land Mobile Communications for Public Safety (APCO/P25)

The Telecommunication Industry Association maintains these standards on a participative basis involving engineers, manufacturers and users. It invites them to submit suggestions and vote on its amendments.

What are Data Center Tiers – Executive Overview

The four levels of data center tiers extend from requirements for a basic server room, all the way through to a mission-critical installation such as the NASA control center. The highest level is Tier IV. In this case all subsystems must be fully redundant. Moreover, the center must be able to operate independently for an indefinite period in the event of a primary power outage.

The Role of Seattle-Based Uptime Institute Tiering System

Visionary innovator Kenneth G. Brill founded the Uptime Institute in 1993. He saw the need to encourage improvements in the performance, efficiency, and reliability of business critical infrastructure through innovation, collaboration, and independent certifications. Since then, his initial thinking developed into a globally accepted standard data center tiers for rating the theoretical availability of facilities. Indeed it can be said he was one of the fathers of mission-critical computing environments and his development of the Uptime Institute tier system has revolutionized data center facilities.

There are two phases whereby data centers determine their availability, and therefore the return on investment the design promises. These are first, tier certification of the design documents. Then the second phase assures that the constructed data center actually meets these design standards.

The Four Data Center Tiers in a Large Nutshell

  • Tier I – Basic site infrastructure with no redundancy
  • Tier II – Tier I plus redundant critical capacity components
  • Tier III – Tier II plus maintainable during operation (Concurrently Maintainable)
  • Tier IV – Critical systems immune from any single fault or failure (Fault Tolerant)

Uptime Institute Tiering and Operational Sustainability

Clearly, these certifications are theoretical propositions assuming all things being equal. In practice, good management and the human factor can mitigate the possibility of these being achieved. The Uptime Institute tier system adds a layer of operational sustainability certification. This is essential to ensure the design promises are met or exceeded.

This certification addresses management and operational factors. These include staffing and maintenance, characteristics of the building itself, and site location (transportation corridors, risk of flooding etc.). The three levels of operational sustainability are as follows:

  • Bronze – There are significant opportunities for improvement in order to achieve the full potential of the installed infrastructure
  • Silver – There are opportunities for improvement in order to achieve the full potential of the installed infrastructure
  • Gold – The full uptime potential of the installed infrastructure has been realized or exceeded

The overall assessment of Tier III colocation center may, for example be Tier III Silver if it is not achieving all the promises of its design. Data center tiers encourage an exceptional standard of installed infrastructure and opportunities for improvement according to the Uptime Institute tiering process.