5 Years of Running a Data Center: Business Lessons Learned

What we’ve learned from 5 years of operating our own data center and what we’re still working on.

vshosting~
5 Years of Running a Data Center: Business Lessons Learned

In August 2015, we officially opened our own ServerPark data center in Hostivař, Prague. As a hosting service provider, vshosting~ had already been operating for 9 years at that time. However, with the launch of ServerPark, a new era began. The most important business lessons we have learned in the 5 years that followed could be summarized thusly: paranoia = the key to success, there’s no such thing as “can’t”, and herding cats.

Paranoia = the key to success

As hosting providers, we have paranoia in the job description already. If you also run a data center, this is doubly true. Maximum security and ultra-high availability of services are of the utmost importance for our clients. For this reason, we have implemented even stricter measures in our data center compared to the industry standard. We have doubled all the infrastructure and even added an extra reserve for each element in the data center.

In contrast, in most other data centers, they only choose the duplication of infrastructure or even only one reserve. It’s much cheaper and the chances of, say, more than half of your air conditioning units failing are minimal, right?

You know what they say: just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after us. Or that three air conditioning units cannot break at the same time. Therefore, we were not satisfied with this standard and we can say that it has paid off several times in those 5 years. Speaking of air conditioning: for example, we once performed an inspection of individual devices (for which, of course, it is necessary to turn them off) and suddenly a compressor got stuck in one of the spare air conditioning units. It would be a disaster for a standard data center, but it didn’t even faze us. Well, we just had to order the compressor…

Unlike most other data centers, even after 5 years, we can boast of completely uninterrupted operation. Extra care pays off, and this is doubly true for a data center.

We also rely on large stocks of hardware. So large that many other hosting providers would find them unnecessary. However, we have once again confirmed that if we want to provide clients with excellent service in all circumstances, “supply paranoia” pays off.

A great example was the beginning of this year’s coronavirus crisis. Due to the increased interest in online shopping, many e-shops needed to significantly increase capacity – even double it in some cases. At the same time, the pandemic around the world has essentially halted the flow of hardware supplies. If we had to order the necessary servers, the client’s infrastructure would simply collapse under the onslaught of customers before the hardware would arrive. But we simply pulled the servers out of the warehouse and installed them almost immediately.

There’s no such thing as “can’t”

Another lesson we learned from running a data center is the need to think out of the box. As hosting service providers and data center operators, we must fulfill the client’s ideas about their server infrastructure from start to finish. Having the “we can’t do that” attitude is simply not an option in this business. You either come up with a solution or you’re done for in this industry.

In 5 years of operating the data center, we have faced our fair share of challenges. Whether it’s designing a giant infrastructure for the biggest local e-commerce players or transforming an entire hosting solution into a brand new technology unknown to us, we’ve learned to never give up before the fight. The results are usually completely new, unique solutions, courtesy of our amazing admins. It is said that the work of an administrator is typically quite stereotypical. Well, not in our company. We have more than enough challenges for each and every one of them.

Of course, there are also requirements that simply cannot be met. The laws of physics are, after all, still in place. Also, sometimes the price of a solution is completely outside the business reality. Even in such cases, however, we have come to the conclusion that it is always worthwhile to look for alternative solutions. Of course, they will not be completely according to the original assignments, but you can come pretty close.

Summing up: we always look for ways to honor our client’s wishes, not for reasons why we cannot.

Herding cats aka how to manage a company with teams all over Prague

When we were building the data center, there were about 20 of us in the company. Above the data hall, we added a floor with offices and facilities with then seemingly unreasonably large capacity of 50 people. We figured that it would take us a good number of years to grow so much. In the end, it took only three.

Today there are about eighty of us (plus 5 dogs, 1 lizard, and 1 hedgehog working part-time). We’ve had zero chance of fitting into the data center for quite some time, so we’ve undertaken slight decentralization. The developers are based in Holešovice and sales and marketing reside in Karlín. From the point of view of company management and HR, such a fragmentation of the company presents a great challenge.

What were the lessons learned? Primarily, that effective communication is really hard but totally worth it. After all, many growing companies run into some type of communication trouble: once there’s more than 25 of you, it is no longer enough to naturally pass on information while waiting for the coffee to brew. When you combine this growth with a division of teams to different locations, the effect multiplies.

We have learned (and in fact are still learning) to share information between teams more regularly and in a more structured way to avoid misunderstandings. Because misunderstandings give rise to unnecessary conflicts, inefficient work, and general frustration. On the other hand, we are no fans of endless meetings with everyone. So what’s the best way to go about it?

For example, we regularly send everyone an in-house newsletter, to which each team in the company contributes updates about what they are doing, what new things they are preparing, and what has been particularly successful. Thanks to this, even a new salesman knows what technicians are doing for the success of our company, and admins understand why marketing wants them to check articles. We break our team stereotypes and constantly remind ourselves that we all pull together.

Our wonderful HR also makes sure that they show up in all our offices every week. That way they have a very good idea of the atmosphere everywhere in the company and the preferences of specific teams. A pleasant side effect are the spontaneous post-work tastings of alcoholic beverages, throughout which, as is well known, relationships are strengthened the most.

After 5 years of operating a data center and 14 running the whole company, we are by no means experts. However, we keep going forward, never stop working on ourselves, and most importantly: we still love it.