Executive Interview: Jonathan Arnold, Managing Director, Volta Data Centres

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Also posted on: IT Infrastructure

Last week I met with Jonathan Arnold, the Managing Director of Volta Data Centres to find out more about the opportunities and challenges of running a data centre in the heart of London and what trends and issues he is seeing from his customers.

Q.  What does your recent partnership announcement with LINX mean for your customers?

JA. We are quite well connected but you can never have too much connectivity. LINX are super-connected and a good brand and we found that customers were asking us specifically for LINX connectivity. By using their connectivity it put out a strong message that if you operate with multiple data centres we are a viable option to be one of them.

Q. Why did you choose to locate a data centre in the middle of London?

JA. For a start the building existed. This was not a new build but we were able to increase the power from 2Mw to 9Mw. I’d say it’s a fairly unique situation, you don’t come across opportunities like this very often and I’m not aware of other data centres like this. Being located near to the financial centre, tech city and the media players makes it an ideal location, a great place to have a data centre.

Q. Are you seeing a growing desire from customers to be closer to their data centres?

JA. Absolutely.. More and more people want to be closer.  They want to see their servers and don’t want to waste a whole day for a 10 minute visit. We are only a 10 minute walk from the city and our customers have told us that they are sick and tired of wasting a day getting out to some of the existing data centre clusters.  They just love the idea that you’re only 10 minutes away.

Q. Ease of access still feels counterintuitive for a central London location Is it just for local customers or do you have a value proposition for customers outside London?

JA. A large percentage of our customers are not based in the City. Many are on the outskirts of London but want a central London base. We are only one tube stop from Kings Cross and a multi data centre strategy with one in the middle of town makes absolute sense for them.

Q So, are your customers primarily using this site as a backup centre or do they see it more as a primary site?

JA. Both; some customers want to use us as a backup site some as primary. We have Financial Services organisations that need to have us as a DR site because we are close, but not too close, and their backup servers were actually in their own basements. Others of course have projects and applications where they use us as a primary site.

Q What is the driver for customers to move out of their own data centres to a location like Volta?

JA. There is no doubt that new apps are the easiest move. As well, if you are doing a technical refresh and can install the new servers in a colocation facility, it is easier and less risky than turning off, moving and reinstalling existing equipment. We are seeing a new breed of high capacity high density compute that existing enterprise data centres may not be able to accommodate. But customers do come and talk to us about their legacy systems to us because we pride ourselves on being flexible and are not a take it or leave it business.

Q. What does flexibility do to your cost structures? Add in a London location and does it affect your competitiveness?

JA. The first thing to say is that physically we own the building. We don’t have rent to pay, it’s our own asset. Basically that makes us an EC1 location without EC1 pricing. We like to think we deliver quality at a competitive price. If you are driven by cost alone and are happy to be at warehouse in middle the country side and aren’t overly bothered about the fastest connectivity then it isn’t likely that we will be competitive. However, in or around London we are very competitive and our access and connectivity pulls people in.

Q What were the challenges you faced in setting up here in the middle of the City?

JA. I don’t think the challenges were radically any different than those for a new build. We already had planning permission as it had always been a data centre. Traffic was obviously a bit of a challenge, and minimising disruption for our neighbours. This called for strong project management, but that’s no different from any large project.

Q How easy has it been to get the right staff and how do keep up standards moving forward?

JA. Being in the middle of London has actually made obtaining staff quite easy; there’s a big pool of trained staff to pick from…it’s an advantage for us. After that it is our job as a leader is to be the right type of business, acting in the right way so that good people want to join us.

Q  A recent data centre survey indicated that the average age of data centre engineers is 54. Have you found it hard to attract young people ?

JA. No, not at all; I have 3 children who are completely used to tablets, smart phones etc.  and they understand that the apps sit in a data centre that everyone relies on. I would say that the fact that our interconnected world wouldn’t exist without data centres makes us a more exciting place to be than staring at a screen all day coding. We have been successful in recruiting young people and women. Success is fun and it depends on the business creating the right environment. As you have probably seen we don’t often wear suits here and we empower our staff to develop and grow.

Q What is your policy regarding training and certification?

JA. It helps that we are a smaller business. Our Facilities Manager and Operations guys are responsible for accreditations.  They make sure everyone is accredited. We set aside a training day every month. We find that by having continual assessment is best practice. In fact we contract with a consultant one day per month to ensure we are up to date with our various ISO and PCI accreditations,

Q Are the data and network requirements envisaged for the Internet of Things (IoT) and the continuing growth of streamed media swinging the market back to local data centres like yours?

JA. It is definitely true and we’d like to say we absolutely foresaw this when we started planning in 2011 but I can’t say we definitely saw this coming. There is no doubt that Cloud and Media companies love the proximity and love the fact that this is all new and shiny.

Q  Are particular market eco-systems a big part of your plans?

JA. We don’t have financial services eco-systems like those you see in some of the major data centre operators, but certain types of customers attract others from the same sector.

Q Customers are often wary about publicising where their data centres are and who operates them. Is secrecy about who is in the data centre a challenge for marketing?

JA. It is a challenge to get case studies. But new industries like gaming and media are more likely to say yes to publicity. After all their business relies on low latency and high availability and being able to point to a well-connected data centre like ours in the centre of London is actually a plus for them.

Q You have talked about Media and Gaming content. Are there other hot-spots sectors you are seeing?

JA. Yes, for us it is very much Managed Services and Cloud. They need a London hub for their own private networks. Docklands isn’t always as flexible or accommodating, or even as commercially competitive as Volta.

Q Some people have talked about the imminent demise of co-location. Are you looking to provide managed services and cloud yourselves to mitigate this possibility?

JA. No, we are pure play co-location company. We are not interested in managed services, we want to focus and do co-location really well. We partner with MSPs and Cloud customers. They come to us because we don’t compete with them. Their customers do want to know where the data centre is and they often bring them on a tour. It would be wrong for us to compete.

Q Is co-location the right thing to call what is provided in these data centres?

JA. I’m not sure. From a marketing perspective perhaps (at this point Perrine Farque the Volta marketing manager agrees enthusiastically). A lot of people have a very different understanding of what colocation actually is. I was at an industry dinner the other evening with finance people. Someone from a financial institution was sitting next to me posed a different question…should they re-brand cloud. His executives still think it isn’t it secure. I was also at a Federation of Small Business event talking about Cloud and some people thought Cloud is a nightmare, sighting TalkTalk as the example. Yet that wasn’t a cloud hack, it was their own system that was breached. Perception of cloud is still poor in many places and people don’t realise that it sits in very secure data centres.  

Q1 Given you are single data centre, what is your plan in the longer term?

JA. We have some way to go before this facility is full. Decisions will be made before getting close to that stage. For us and our investors it has always been more than about one site.  We do need to see a return on our investment first.  It is a big capital investment which is why many MSPs and Cloud companies choose to use facilities like ours. But we definitely are about having multiple data centres.

Q Finally, you have made reference to Brand Volta. What is Brand Volta?

JA. It is about a quality product, a company that is easy to do business with that supports its customers to help them grow. It’s about being different, about being flexible and agile. Power by the hour is an example. Others haven’t followed yet, but it is the flexibility of our business model that enables this difference.

This post first appeared on the old Cassini Reviews website.