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What is connectivity? A guide for new industry professionals

By Austin Walker · 3/19/2020

Without connectivity a data center is just a warm building of computers that can talk to themselves.

It's a game that’s won and lost on speed. The faster traffic can get to a data center and back, the more valuable the data center can be to people outside its four walls.

If this is the first article you’re reading about connectivity, then you’re in the right spot. We’ll unpack everything you need to get up to speed below.

This is part seven of Data Center Fundamentals, datacenterHawk’s guide to getting up to speed on the data center market. If you’re a new participant in the industry, then this is for you. Instead of analyzing deep market trends, we’ll be covering the basics one step at a time. Be sure to subscribe to our monthly update to know when we release future topics.

If you would like to sign up for our free official Data Center Fundamentals email course, click here.

Customers Don’t Like Slow Delivery Times

Imagine you run a logistics company. The success of your business depends on how quickly you deliver packages. As your operation grows, you build warehouses to swap packages on and off trucks that are going to different areas. Sometimes trucks have to stop at multiple warehouses to get everything they need to take to their destination.

Ideally your trucks can take interstate freeways directly to each warehouse instead of slogging through dense downtown traffic or winding through miles of dirt farm roads. Fast roads directly to a warehouse are better than slow roads that require a round about route. Traveling on slower roads or taking round about routes ultimately compounds into slower delivery times.

Customers don’t like slow delivery times.

This is what data center connectivity is all about.

You probably caught on that the warehouses in our example are data centers. The roads in this example are the connectivity, which in the data center industry is usually accomplished via fiber lines.

And just like the roads, if we want to get traffic where it needs to be as quickly as possible, it’s better to use the fastest, biggest, most direct fiber line possible. We’ll still need to make stops every now and again to pick up packages or data, but the concept remains the same.

The Importance of Connectivity

In simpler days of the internet, one computer would talk directly to another and get everything it needed. Today companies are using increasingly complex systems to support their customers and their internal needs.

It’s not uncommon for a company to deploy part of their IT resources to the cloud and keep part in house, whether physically in their building or distributed across colocation data centers. Even within those nodes, they may have a multitude of micro services spread across different servers. As the number of points of communication increases, so does the importance of keeping those communications as fast as possible.

From a user experience perspective, all this operational speed is typically taken for granted, until something goes wrong. In terms of user experience, human factor studies have consistently shown over 30 years that delays of 1 second interrupt the users flow of thought while delays of more than 10 seconds loses their attention. Users consistently bemoan the slow speeds of websites and apps.

In the earlier days of the internet, it was understood that as companies were growing there would be some hiccups. Twitter’s fail whale, which indicated a service outage, even became a cultural icon.

However today, as consumer choices on the internet proliferate, a slow load will ultimately become a no load as customers go elsewhere. All the more reason to focus on speed.

Connectivity Solutions Overview

So how does a company actually ensure their data gets to its destination as fast as possible? That’s what good connectivity helps ensure.

Fiber, Carrier Neutral Data Centers, and Being On-Net

Frequently what the industry refers to as fiber is fiber line that connects you to the world outside the four walls of the data center. You may have to deal with delays like potential congestion but it’s the primary method to reach geographically dispersed facilities.

In the earlier days of colocation, data centers would only have a single fiber provider like AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast. If you wanted to use the data center, you were going to have to use their fiber provider. Think something akin to you moving into an apartment where the complex signed an exclusive deal with a single internet provider.

Over time though, the data center industry evolved to building data centers with multiple fiber providers. We call these facilities carrier neutral data centers. This means that if you have most of your infrastructure on Cogent, Zayo, CenturyLink or another fiber provider then you can go to a carrier neutral data center and expect to bring your fiber provider with you.

With the advent of carrier neutral data centers, several fiber providers have gone about preemptively building out connections at several of these data centers. So that when their customers show up they can get service right away. This is what it means for a fiber provider to be on-net at a data center. It means they are already connected and live in the building so that customers don’t have to wait for them to build out a point of presence there.


This might be the simplest type of connectivity. If a company has servers in one area of a data center and needs to quickly communicate with a server in another area of the data center, they would request a cross-connect.

This is a direct line between servers that doesn’t even have to go out to the public internet. Think something akin to you connecting two laptops via a USB or ethernet cable. There’s nothing between the computers except for the wire. No chance of latency. No chance of traffic congestion. No need for switching or routing. No chance of having the connection severed by an unknowing construction crew. It’s very fast and very reliable. But it also doesn’t go outside the four walls of the data center.

Campus Cross-connect

Instead of single isolated data centers, some larger providers opt to build several data center facilities in close proximity on the same parcel of land. These groups of data centers are called a campus. If a company has a server in one of these buildings and needs to quickly communicate with a server in the building next door, they would request a campus cross-connect.

Similar to a cross-connect, the campus cross-connect is internal to the campus. It doesn’t need to go out to the public internet and reaps many of the same benefits for not doing so. It’s very reliable with very little latency. The provider essentially hard wires a cross-connect to a single point in Facility A, which connects to a giant private fiber optic pipe to Facility B, and then hard wires a cross-connect to the server in Facility B.

Cloud Direct Connect

Over the past ten years, companies started to move more IT resources over to cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform or Microsoft Azure. If a company has material resources in the cloud, they may want to reduce their exposure risk by avoiding connecting to the cloud over the public internet. In this case, they would request a direct connect from their data center to the cloud provider.

As it implies, a direct connect is a private, direct connection from the company's premises to the cloud provider. Compared to internet based connections, this can help increase bandwidth and consistency, all while defraying network costs.

Carrier Hotel

As an example, some companies want to connect to certain fiber providers but find that the providers aren’t physically connected to their data center. Instead of waiting for all of their fiber providers to build out points of presence at their facility, they may opt to connect to the market's carrier hotel.

While most data centers brag about scalability and security, carrier hotels pride themselves on the ecosystem they create through fiber and network providers. They want to be the single location you can go to connect to almost anyone.

Most markets will only have a single carrier hotel. On the coasts, the carrier hotel normally sits where the subsea cables come ashore. In non-costal markets, you’ll find them near the densest infrastructure in the city.

We recently dove deep into carrier hotels on one of our podcasts if you’d like to learn more.

Redundancy and Easy Mistakes To Make

Power infrastructure redundancy is critical to the data center industry and connectivity redundancy is too.

Connectivity can sometimes be forgotten. If there’s only a single line connecting your critical systems, it doesn’t matter how redundant the nodes are if they can’t talk to each other. Without a consistent connection, these nodes go back to just being computers in a warm building talking to themselves.

It’s also good to remember that different people have different views of connectivity.

A company that operates an enterprise data center to solely support their own company operations probably doesn’t care how many fiber providers they have on-net as long as they have the one or two they have contracts with. A colocation data center wants to have enough fiber providers to attract customers. But they don’t want to go through the expense of trying to compete with a carrier hotel. For carrier hotels, the more fiber providers that are on-net the better.

We also dove into the different types of data centers on one of our recent podcasts if you’d like to learn more.

If you’re trying to find data centers that have specific fiber providers on-net, our search filters can help with that.

This was part seven of Data Center Fundamentals, datacenterHawk’s guide to getting up to speed on the data center market. If you want to dig into the world of fiber, check out the fiber provider filters on our search tool or the connectivity section of any of our facility profiles. Be sure to subscribe to our monthly update to know when we release future topics.

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