CenturyLink's new Shakopee data center will keep 'the cloud' safe

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2014 - 2:30 PM

CenturyLink’s new Shakopee data center is the first in Minnesota to offer super-redundant “Tier 3” dependability to corporate customers.

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Alex Szczepaniak, sales engineer, left, and Chris Zander, data center support manager, worked in the point of presence room at Century Link’s new customer data center in Shakopee. The facility will offer “Tier 3” dependability to corporate customers.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

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In an effort to make computing services nearly as reliable as the telephone, CenturyLink last week opened Minnesota’s first high-reliability “Tier 3” public data center in Shakopee.

CenturyLink, based in Monroe, La., is best known to Minnesotans as the state’s largest telephone company. But it has bet its future on the belief that data center services such as “cloud computing” will make up for a decline in the use of its traditional phone service caused by cellphones. And it believes opening a rare Tier 3 data center will be a lure for computing customers in the Twin Cities.

Being rated Tier 3 on a scale of one to four means the $26 million Shakopee data center has so many redundant controls, power feeds and communications links that it will remain operational 99.982 percent of the time, according to the New York-based Uptime Institute, an independent organization that rates the reliability of data centers. In other words, the new data center will be out of service no more than 94 minutes every year.

The CenturyLink facility is the first Tier 3 data center in Minnesota to offer services to outside corporate customers, the Uptime Institute said. Target Corp. runs two Tier 3 data centers in Brooklyn Park and Elk River for its own use, and UnitedHealth Group operates one in Elk River.

“In the future, everybody is going to be interested in this kind of computing reliability,” said Alex Szczepaniak, a lead sales engineer for CenturyLink who works in downtown Minneapolis. “They will expect it the same way they expect telephone dial-tone reliability today.”

But data-center technology still has a ways to go to beat the dependability of the nation’s land-line telephone system, which is famous for being 99.999 percent reliable. Data centers that reliable would be too expensive to build, Szcze­paniak said.

Still, the 15-employee Shakopee facility is fairly amazing. To qualify as a Tier 3 data center, it has two separate electricity feeds from Shakopee Public Utilities. The electricity is backed up by dual diesel generators fed by separate underground fuel tanks.

“If the electric power failed, either one of those generators could run the facility,” said Chris Crosby, CEO of Compass Datacenters, the Dallas firm that built the facility for CenturyLink. “And every component in the facility has that level of duplication.”

In addition, Tier 3 requirements meant the building had to have security inside and out, Crosby said. The data center had to be constructed to withstand winds of up to 149 miles an hour. Doors to rooms where computer data is stored can only be opened with biometric handprint scanners, which require workers to lay their palms flat with all fingers outstretched.

Some of the security enhancements at the Shakopee data center are only theoretical. For example, CenturyLink emphasizes that the data center routes information to and from the Internet through communications lines to Chicago and Denver, and that those lines don’t pass through the 511 Building, at 511 11th Av. S. in downtown Minneapolis, a major convergence point for much of the Internet traffic in the Twin Cities. The company says it would be risky to be so reliant on a single location. But there haven’t been any major communication disruptions at the 511 Building, so it’s difficult to prove the value of routing Internet traffic around it.

Another safeguard is the data center’s location. The Shakopee site was chosen with an eye on operational effectiveness and safety, Crosby said.

The site’s virtues include being served by many existing fiber optic communications cables that are buried in the ground, and the availability of good connections to the electric power grid, Crosby said. In addition, the site is not close to hazards such as high-pressure natural gas lines, chemical storage facilities or high-traffic freight railroad tracks, on which a disaster could force an evacuation of the data center, he said.

CenturyLink has already sold about a quarter of the 25,000-square-foot facility’s computing capacity, a sign that cloud computing is gaining acceptance among corporate customers, Szcze­paniak said. The data center now consists of a single building, but could be expanded to three more if demand justifies it.

“Over the last six to eight years, cloud computing was experimental. Most corporations were testing cloud applications to see if they worked well, and only a few retail operations such as Amazon and eBay dove right in,” Szczepaniak said.

These days more corporations are ready to give cloud computing a try, though some turn to what’s called “hybrid cloud computing” in which corporations put part of their computing operations in the cloud and keep the rest in their own data centers.

“They are not totally ready to surrender everything to a cloud that could store data in any geography,” Szczepaniak said.

CenturyLink also has answers for some of the other concerns of corporate customers, such as worries about exactly where their cloud data is being stored and the potential for slowdowns when data is retrieved.

To satisfy federal rules about health care records, which specify knowing the location of the data, CenturyLink can store sensitive information in a particular bank of computers within a locked wire cage inside the Shakopee data center, Szczepaniak said.

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