Ben Hatton A lesson in data center communication

May 7, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Server room

During a downtime event, a data center’s customer communication procedures are just as important as their ability to fix the issue itself.

I recently read a story from Data Center Knowledge that caught my attention, and not necessarily in a good way. The article was essentially a data center horror story, chronicling an ordeal that no data center (and certainly no data center customer) ever wants to experience. You can check out the story here; I won’t make mention of who the data center in question was, but I do want to look at the situation itself, and what lessons can be learned from it.

The outage, and how it was communicated

In mid-March, an outage occurred while the data center was performing scheduled maintenance. While a minimal level of downtime can sometimes be expected during a scheduled maintenance period, it quickly became clear that this downtime was very much out of the ordinary because it lasted for a very long time. In fact, it was to the point that many of their colocation customers reported downtime of up to 24 hours.

While this was obviously a colossal problem in itself, it was only half of the battle for this data center. The other half was in how it communicated to its clients. Many of its customers reported that they were not kept up to date in any way on the status of the work to correct the issue, with several lashing out on social media. While the data center did provide some updates from time to time, there was very little detailed communication done on a consistent basis. This certainly didn’t do anything to help the situation.

My reaction

I think for me, the craziest part about this whole story was the lack of proper communication on the part of the data center during this event. If I was a customer, I would want to be kept in the loop on work being done as much as possible, even if what’s being communicated to me isn’t always positive (ie. “We’re still working on it, we’ll have another update soon, etc.”). It’s no different than if your power or cable went out, where you would want to hear that it is being worked on, and when you could expect the issue to be resolved. And the more time that goes by without receiving any updates, the more uneasy we all become.

Data center communication lessons from this story

The goal for any data center is for downtime to never occur in the first place, but in the event that it does, or in the event that there is a planned downtime event for maintenance (as this apparently was), the level of communication is one of the most important things the data center must be able to handle well. Here are a few ways that a situation like this could have been better handled from a communication standpoint:

  • Communicate with customers frequently, as in at least once per hour. This was a major area that was lacking in this circumstance, and if updates had been communicated on a consistent basis, the tension level could have been hugely reduced. Even if there was nothing new to report on the work being done, a simple “We’re still working on it, we’ll be in touch again in xx minutes” would have been tremendous as well.
  • Be as transparent as you can be, providing as many details on the work being done as possible. Colocation customers always need to be well-informed, especially when there is an outage.
  • Reach your customers where they are, and don’t rely on just a single medium to get the message out. This means having a plan in place that involves communicating through multiple channels such as email, SMS, social media, etc.

At its worst, this situation was a source of a lot of pain for this data center’s colocation clients. At its best though, I feel that it can be a good case study of how communication should and shouldn’t be handled during a crisis. Our communications policy at Data Cave involves the use of multiple channels (email, SMS, our online ticketing system, and phone) to communicate things like maintenance notifications, updates on work being completed, and updates on work being done by upstream providers. Keeping our clients well-informed of any work being done either by us or connectivity providers is a very big deal to us.

What are your thoughts about this story? Are there any thoughts or lessons that you took away from it? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear them!

 

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