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Uptime Institute tier classification system faces new rivals

Because the Uptime Institute focuses primarily on power and cooling, alternative data center certifications have emerged. Their chances of replacing Uptime, however, seem slim.

The Uptime Institute tier classification system has been the subject of debate for nearly as long as it has existed. For decades, it was the primary standard by which data center managers measured levels of efficiency and system availability in their facilities. Now, new alternatives to the Uptime Institute tiers have emerged as potential competitors.

Common criticisms of Uptime

Some argue that Uptime's tier classification system covers only the power and cooling infrastructure. But elements such as the network and security are just as critical to the availability of a data center. Critics also question whether the tier definitions have kept up with technology -- particularly alternate power designs and multisite rather than internal site redundancy.

Two tenets that are sacred to Uptime generate the most criticism. First, there are no partial tiers. If facility designers overlook one element of the electrical or mechanical infrastructure that prevents a system from being concurrently maintainable, they fall into a lower tier. Second, only the Uptime Institute can provide a legitimate tier certification for a facility -- which is accompanied by a significant charge. The Uptime certification is a performance-based approach -- not a prescriptive one -- so there's no checklist to guide designs.

Alternative data center tier classification systems

Many organizations and standards have attempted to replace the Uptime Institute's certification system, particularly the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) ANSI/TIA 942-A standard. TIA-942 began as a cabling standard and covers a wider spectrum than the Uptime documents. It's also an official standard recognized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), whereas the Uptime Institute's tier standard topology is not. Although the TIA-942 standard has had some success -- more in Europe than in the United States -- design specifications do not cite it nearly as often as the Uptime Institute tier levels.

In addition, two other alternative tier systems recently emerged.

Some argue that Uptime's tier classification system covers only the power and cooling infrastructure. But elements such as the network and security are just as critical to the availability of a data center.

In June 2017, Switch, a Las Vegas-based data center provider, unveiled an extended standard called Tier 5. Switch Founder and CEO Rob Roy does not consider the Uptime Institute's highest rating -- Tier IV -- sufficient enough for a best-in-class hosting, cloud or colocation site. Roy hired two of the original authors of the Uptime tier classifications to help create and run his new Data Center Standards Foundation and develop Switch's Tier 5 criteria. The Switch rating adds components such as carrier redundancy, locations of power and cooling equipment and security. Switch intends to form a nonprofit body that will provide this proprietary rating system and its certifications.

Switch is a commercial enterprise, and one would assume it will market its new classification system to competitors. Whether those competitors would want Switch to evaluate their data centers remains to be seen.

The Green Grid's new Open Standard for Data Center Availability (OSDA) could be Uptime's fiercest competitor. The Green Grid developed widely accepted metrics, such as Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), for tracking power efficiency in data centers, and its members are among the highest-profile companies in the industry. Therefore, anything The Green Grid promotes could find some interest.

OSDA is intended to be nonproprietary and will build on the same fundamental classifications as the Uptime Institute Tiers, TIA-942 levels and others. Its hierarchy is built upon four core levels: basic nonredundant, basic redundant, concurrently maintainable and fault-tolerant.

OSDA emphasizes three considerations that The Green Grid believes other classifications overlook. First, like Switch's new standard, it incorporates the use of alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, fuel cell and tidal, as main energy sources, as well as innovative approaches to substation design that might provide capabilities similar to more conventional designs. Second, the standard acknowledges architectures that are based on multiple networked data centers for redundancy -- a basic tenet of mega-scale operations, such as Google -- instead of only on individual power and cooling redundancies. Lastly, it provides a way to classify data centers that implement availability features beyond their present classifications, but not enough to meet requirements at the next level. This addresses one of the most well-known complaints of the Uptime's rigid approach.

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OSDA is only in preliminary form, but The Green Grid intends to release it in stages throughout 2017, with ongoing collaboration and improvement in 2018. However, since The Green Grid is a voluntary organization, accomplishing this might take longer than expected, and it could be problematic to provide actual certification services.

Will Uptime tier classification be replaced?

Uptime's had too much traction for too long. The four-tier concept's simplicity is a major appeal, and anything more comprehensive will also be more complex -- which has been the downfall of other attempts. That simplicity is a double-edged sword, however, since many data center designers that overlook the simplicity of the Uptime tier classification think they've designed a Tier IV facility, when it may not even be Tier II.

Still, it's doubtful that any alternatives to the Uptime tiers will act as a replacement anytime soon. They might influence some revisions, but even that is questionable.

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