Data center targets small integrators

Baltimore start-up is counting on smaller firms to need continuity-of-operations space

Customers wanting space at a new data center in Baltimore won’t have to choose from particular systems integrators, telecommunications carriers or other providers. Instead, vendor neutrality is a key element of the sales pitch for Baltimore Technology Park, which President Thomas Cunningham believes makes it an ideal option for smaller integrators.

Well-known larger firms usually have data-center facilities for their clients, Cunningham said. But midsize integrators and small firms that need space to house servers and network infrastructures for government clients often don’t have such resources.

“The difference with this data center is it’s not owned by a telecom company,” he said. “Also, we’re not integrators. There’s no preferred integrator at the Baltimore Technology Park. Any integrator is free to include space at the Baltimore Technology Park as part of a proposal.”

Such neutrality is not unique. Cunningham has identified a number of competitors, but he believes the park offers other advantages. The 30,000-square-foot facility is based far enough away from Washington, D.C., to serve as a backup location for agencies needing to safeguard data but close enough for officials or D.C.-based contractors to drive there in about an hour.

It is also in an Enterprise Zone, making it eligible for property tax breaks of 80 percent for equipment subject to personal property taxes, Cunningham said.

Alabanza, a company specializing in automated hosting, owns the technology park.

However, the facility is still in the start-up phase and has no clients yet. Cunningham is assembling an advisory panel of integrators to guide the park’s next steps.

“It’s a large enough facility that integrators can build custom suites,” he said. Although it will be open to commercial clients as well, he expects that about 25 percent of its business will come from the federal government or integrators working on behalf of agencies.

“If I pride myself on anything, it’s the ability to hear what the needs are,” he said. “Integrators are feeling pressured by telecom companies [and] data-center companies that are really now stepping on their toes and becoming the integrators themselves.”

However, some analysts disagree with Cunningham’s assessment. Phil Kiviat, a partner at the Guerra Kiviat consulting firm, said agencies need more out of a data center than a blank slate.

“I doubt that it is a unique sales pitch or that it will be particularly persuasive to agencies that are used to selecting from competitive proposals designed to meet their particular hosting requirements,” Kiviat said. “Cyber and physical security, reliability and cost will be just as, if not more, important.”

Bryan Van Dussen, director of service provider research at In-Stat, said several companies have tried a similar model — many without success. However, the Baltimore park’s pitch to smaller integrators could build a niche market.

“Giving access to that kind of capability to smaller firms levels the playing field for them a little bit,” Van Dussen said. “To those who host in this facility, that becomes part of their value proposition.”

Companies that tried a similar strategy a few years ago left “blood in the gutter,” he said. However, the Baltimore Technology Park could beat the odds if its leaders can learn from others’ mistakes.

“It’s nice to see some investment coming back into hosting,” he said. “It might bode well if the business plans are more rock steady than they were five or six years ago.”

Some of the midsize firms interested in the park value Cunningham’s understanding of their business needs. For example, Mind Over Machines does not currently provide hosting for agency clients, even though about half of its overall business comes from the federal government, said Tom Loveland, chairman of the company and a member of Cunningham’s advisory board. The company provides hosting for some of its commercial clients but has so far not been able to meet agencies’ needs. The Baltimore Technology Park could change that equation, he said.

Major service providers don’t always offer the level of service their reputation would suggest, he added.

“There are many times when it’s difficult to get attention from the provider when it’s very critical to get that attention,” Loveland said. “When there’s competition, the level of service goes up.”

A small integrator called Macfadden might become one of the park’s clients soon, said Russ Hall, the firm’s chief executive officer. Macfadden’s clients are chiefly federal civilian agencies.

“We’ve been at some of [the agencies] for 10 or 12 years,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘We know what you can do. What else can you do for us?’” Macfadden needs to bring customers some innovations, and the park could provide opportunities to develop them, Hall said.

Carriers argue for less neutrality

The Baltimore Technology Park doesn’t care what telecommunications carriers or systems integrators its clients use. One of the selling points that Thomas Cunningham, the park’s president, emphasizes when he markets the center is carrier neutrality.

But three counterarguments are persuasive, said Rick Dyer, director of product management for information technology solutions at Verizon Business, which encompasses the business and government sectors of Verizon.

  • Control: Agencies that take space in neutral facilities may not have a single source of control as do those using centers affiliated with providers. When something goes wrong, customers must determine whether the problem relates to IT, telecom or another component of the operation and then contact the appropriate service provider.

  • Redundancy: Verizon data centers offer layers of redundant services that can take over if parts of a customer’s primary network should fail. “The scale of it makes sense,” Dyer said. “If we’ve got a lot of customers in one location, we can afford to build in that level of redundancy.”

  • Limitations: Carrier neutrality does not always mean customers can use any carrier they please, Dyer said. Carriers still have to run fiber-optic connections into the building or lease that “last-mile” connection from another company.

— Michael Hardy

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