Public sector to outsource two data centres

18 Oct 2004

Within the next few weeks the Government will be inviting tenders to provide our public service with space and services in two world-class data centres as recommended in the Flynn Report on decentralisation last March.

The proposal is that the total public service requirement for centralised data storage and applications hosting will be met by taking space as “anchor tenants” in two privately owned and operated data centres rather than building a state facility or facilities to replace and consolidate the current individual Departmental data centres.

Public service systems will be balanced between the two centres to allow failover and back-up between the centres for business continuity and disaster recovery. The requirement will be for about 2,000sq m per centre at a cost that industry sources reckon would start at a minimum of perhaps €4m-€5m annually.

The Decentralisation Implementation Group report has a chapter on ICT that received very little attention while the news focus remained on the re-location of civil servants. But with expert advice, notably from the Centre for Management Organisation and Development, based in the Department of Finance, it took a focused and clear-sighted look at the requirements and concluded that building a government data centre (or even just owning or running one or more) was not the answer.

In essence, the group decided that trying to replicate the scale, investment, technology and performance, experience and expertise of a world class data centre as a public service project – and maintaining it at that leading technical and professional edge – was not going to be economically justifiable. A strategic Government project such as this still has to make business sense. In addition, the need for a second shared centre raises the issue of doubling the investment or going to the private sector.

While the national data centre capacity will be available to all agencies, the initial lead departments are Agriculture and Food, Social and Family Affairs, Local Government Computer Services Board, Reach and the Revenue Commissioners. Finance is also a likely contender and in any event CMOD itself will be based at or near the principal centre and linked to a new centralised ICT agency or team.

Some urgency is introduced to the project by the fact that the Revenue data centre on St John’s Road will come to the end of its lease in 2005 and the site is scheduled for re-development. Any plans the Commissioners may have had would have gone on hold when the Government’s decentralisation strategy was announced last December.

The tender competition for this significant contract promises to be very interesting indeed. Ireland has world class data centres – we had even more in the late 90s – but they are all based in Dublin. But there are currently less than 10 world class centres remaining (or fewer, depending on your definition of ‘world class’); all but two are owned by multinationals and no company owns more than one. The Irish independents are Data Electronics, which hosts the INEX Internet exchange for Irish ISPs, and ServeCentric, which bought the high security Worldport facility.

The multinationals include IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HP), plus Esat BT, Interxion and Telecity. But HP leases rather than owns its Citywest facility while IBM operates its data centre within the Servecentric facility. That may be regarded as a side issue, however, since they are so strong on the technical management side. Some of the others are so telecoms focused that they may require development to be true data centres or are owned by telcos and limit the choice of carrier.

Other considerations include ‘hardening’ – physical security to a military level, for obvious reasons. Only ServeCentric, in the former Worldport facility, is currently a contender in that regard. A more difficult factor is geographical separation: ideally, a pair of data centres for national data should be a significant distance apart – remembering some of the awful lessons of September 11 in New York.

But none of our centres are much more than about 10 miles apart and almost all are on the already crowded M50 route if people or items (for example, back-up tapes) had to be transported in an emergency. Developing an existing data centre or building a new one to world class standards would be restricted to Cork and Limerick because of the strategic necessity for guaranteed power supply at the required capacity.

There is also a national security question for Ireland in relation to US multinationals. The US Homeland Security agency has jurisdiction (de facto, even if there are lots of legal arguments) over their assets overseas. Theoretically, such a company could be compelled to give access to data or devices it hosts for clients. Earlier this month in Britain, a US Web hosting company handed over to Homeland Security a set of servers and hard drives which belonged to Independent Media (Indymedia) on grounds as yet undisclosed at time of writing.

Under the contract proposed for the public service data centre requirements the facility owners will almost certainly not even have access to the state’s equipment or data. There is also a huge gulf between the data of a small media company and a sovereign government. But a thorny question mark still hangs over a possible conflict of national security interests if the chosen data centres are operated by US companies.

By Leslie Faughnan