February 11, 2015
Poor Henry Ford. Guy comes up with the idea of the assembly line, was a major force behind the years of American predominance in the auto industry and, yet, it seems like any time he’s referenced nowadays it’s for the statement on his predisposition for the narrowness of consumer choice, “People can have the Model T in any color, so long as it’s black”. Personally, I drive a black car so I don’t really have a problem with this, but I understand that folks like to drive a vehicle in the color of their choice. I’m sure there are as many reasons for choosing a red car over a blue one as there are people, but I think it really all comes down feeling that we feel that this says something about as an individual—“I’m not a number. I’m one of a only few thousand people who drive beige Malibus, so take that all you mindless conformists”. I get it. Everyone wants to feel unique, even if it’s only in the color of the car they drive. Recently one of my industry peers said that Ford’s Model T model no longer works for the wholesale data center market. In a world where everyone wants to be a “special snowflake” this initially makes sense, but when we look below the surface of this statement it begs the question, “Does everyone really need their own custom data center?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a knee jerker as the next guy, and I can almost hear folks out there saying, “But Chris, our mission critical applications are different from everyone else. We need “x” kW per rack with no redundancy. We’re special”. And some of you out there do really have specific requirements that some provider is more than willing to accommodate to the extent that you’re willing to pay. In other words, like someone who is 6’7” you definitely stand out in a crowd, but you won’t be buying three suits for the price of one with a free pair of pants and 15 sets of socks at Jos. A. Bank either. So you might want to factor cost into your “how unique am I thinking”.
I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, when it comes to our data centers, our requirements aren’t really all that different, and that’s not a bad thing. We want them to be reliable and things like a 2N design, Level 5 commissioning and Uptime constructed certification aid on that score, most of us want the facility close to us, we prefer that they are durable and won’t fall apart in bad weather, it would be nice if we didn’t have to share the facility with anyone, and if we need to grow we’d rather do it on our own schedule and budget rather than having to build the entire building first. Just like the auto industry, the first models of the wholesale space, adhered to that Model T philosophy. So I get the point. The problem was that in the late 70s the Japanese introduced a different approach than industrialization. This approach followed the teachings of Dr. Deming and the concept of productization.
Through the adoption of the concept of productization, companies like Honda began to look at the market and their offerings in a new way. Rather than building products with a myriad of customer options to address a broad range of consumer “wants”, these firms focused on developing products that addressed the “needs” of specific market segments. The Accord, for example, offered few options other than color, but included as standard things like air conditioning and power steering to address the needs of its target audience—the average person who commuted to work. This focus was beneficial to both the manufacturer and the customer. The customer was able to purchase a reliable vehicle, without having to wait for it to be delivered, that included all of their basic requirements at an affordable price. For Honda, the elimination of large volumes of inventory that were necessary to support a myriad of product permutations, allowed them to focus on continually improving the processes associated with building and maintaining their vehicles. The by-product of these efforts were cars whose performance and ease of maintainability were viewed by customers as delivering on the paradox of high quality at a competitive price point, and, increased market share for Japanese auto manufacturers. In a sense, productization is the step between a Model T and a Bentley. These principles apply to the data center industry as well.
Although our basic needs are all the same, pretty much everyone likes a little personalization with their data center. This of course is a different concept than customization. Personalizing your data center is having your provider build the conference room so it has windows along one of its walls, customization is more along the lines of “I want 10MW in an N design”. In many instances, personalization is really what’s required to address the small differences that separate your data center requirements from the next guy’s. At Compass, for example, our standard product offers customers over 60 different personalization options, including color. Ironically, no one has asked for black.
Everyone wants to feel that they are different from everyone else, and we are. Some of us just want to broadcast this to a larger audience. Odds are, this same mode of thought doesn’t apply to your data center. As Henry Ford found out, a red model T is just a black one with a different paint job. All data centers may not be created equal, but when you really think about it, most of them are.