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Post-pandemic IT: Are virtual datacentre tours here to stay?

A physical tour of a datacentre has traditionally been a key marketing and selling tool for colocation operators, and the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many to provide virtual alternatives. But how do they compare?

A physical tour of a datacentre has traditionally been an important part of the sales process for any colocation operator looking to entice enterprises or hyperscale cloud firms to consider renting space from them.

“Historically, datacentre tours have been an industry staple, used to show prospective customers the quality of your facility, as well as demonstrate features like the robustness of your physical security, for example,” says Jeff Tapley, group managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) of Digital Realty-owned colocation giant Interxion.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in spring 2020, and the stay-at-home mandates and social distancing restrictions this ushered in, the datacentre industry has had to find new ways to showcase their facilities to prospective clients, prompting a pivot from physical to virtual tours.

“When Covid-19 hit, a physical tour wasn’t something that the industry could simply do away with – we had to adapt,” says Tapley. “Thus, the virtual tour rose to prominence.”

And it’s not difficult to see why, he says, given that virtual datacentre tours are often more convenient for clients to take part in, and easier for operators to tweak the content of based on what clients require from a performance and location perspective.

From Microsoft to Equinix, many of the world’s biggest datacentre operators are now offering virtual tours of their facilities, but – from a post-pandemic perspective – are they really a viable, long-term alternative to physical tours?

Noelle Walsh, corporate vice-president of cloud operations and innovation at Microsoft, certainly seems to think so, based on the positive feedback the tech giant has received in response to the virtual online tours it now offers companies of its own Azure public cloud datacentres

“The pandemic has in many ways normalised virtual alternatives to physical gatherings, all of which is made possible by the cloud,” Walsh tells Computer Weekly. “Customer response to the virtual tour has already been overwhelmingly positive, and the virtual tour will be a staple of customer and partner tours – even when we return to pre-pandemic conditions.”

Keeping clients safe

This view is backed by Adam Nethersole, vice-president of marketing at Harlow-based colocation provider Kao Data, who says the datacentre industry’s ability to pivot from physical to virtual tours during the pandemic has played a key role in helping keep clients safe.

“The move to virtual tours has been crucial to maintain Covid-safe procedures, ensure operational continuity and provide a safe environment for our customers,” says Nethersole. “However, this has also provided the opportunity to create engaging virtual experiences.”

So much so that Kao Data credits the creation of its virtual tour experience with helping to secure a major client win during the pandemic in the form of the Nvidia-backed Cambridge-1 supercomputer, which is billed as being the UK’s most powerful supercomputer dedicated to life sciences research.

“Customer response to the virtual tour has already been overwhelmingly positive”
Noelle Walsh, Microsoft

Traditionally, supercomputers take several years of planning and building work to bring online, but Cambridge-1 went from inception to initial deployment in 20 weeks.

“Providing a virtual tour was instrumental to the Nvidia Cambridge-1 contract win and the oversight of the supercomputer’s 20-week deployment was largely delivered remotely,” says Nethersole. “Such was its success that we’re yet to even welcome some of Nvidia’s core team to the datacentre.”

Online tours are among a number of business continuity measures Equinix has introduced to protect stakeholders during the pandemic, says Lorraine Wilkinson, the firm’s regional vice-president of UK sales. 

“We took action to restrict access to visitors, customers and customer contractors, along with non-critical Equinix employees, contractors and vendors, for anything other than critical and essential work,” says Wilkinson.

“Due to these restrictions, we began offering virtual datacentre tours as an alternative to physical ones. Doing this means we can showcase the innovative solutions we provide, in addition to the physical infrastructure that underpins our entire platform and our design processes that prioritise sustainability.”

A tour in 60 minutes

A virtual tour now takes up about 60 minutes of the client’s working day, she says, whereas a physical site visit takes significantly longer, particularly when you factor in the travel time required to get to get to a datacentre.

Simon Ford, area vice-president for EMEA at colocation provider CyrusOne, would not have predicted, pre-pandemic, that virtual datacentre tours would catch on as they have, but they have proved a viable substitute for physical tours.

“Pre-Covid, we would never have thought virtual tours would replace physical tours entirely, but we are in fact getting very close to that,” he says.

Over the past year, says Ford, CyrusOne has developed a variety of virtual tour options that are tailored to meet the needs of prospective clients at different stages of the datacentre procurement cycle.

“Pre-Covid, we would never have thought virtual tours would replace physical tours entirely, but we are in fact getting very close to that”
Simon Ford, CyrusOne

These range from land acquisition and pre-construction sales tours to customer inspections and handovers, plus sales tours of operational colocation, he says.

“Two of our hyperscale customers are now so happy and confident in what we are delivering virtually, that they have determined that they will never need to physically visit a CyrusOne site or facility again from either a sales or handover perspective,” says Ford.

“This is an incredible environmental positive and will also create vast savings in travel and accommodation and facilitate a better quality of life for US executives, who no longer have to spend weeks on end travelling.”

Hybrid approach

Despite the numerous benefits and success stories shared by the colocation and hyperscale firms that spoke to Computer Weekly, it is likely that operators will offer a mix of physical and virtual tour options to clients once the pandemic is over, according to several contributors to this article.

These include Kao Data’s Nethersole, who expects operators to take a “hybrid approach” to datacentre tours in the long term.

“Each medium has its merits, but given the international nature of compute, a virtual tour means that the sales cycle can continue uninterrupted, and from distance,” he says.

Equinix’s Wilkinson takes a similar view, arguing that the industry is likely to offer both virtual and physical tours to cater to differing customer needs.

“For example, if a customer is enquiring about a new datacentre that has recently been finalised, we might not have the ability to give them a virtual tour right away, so it may be better for them to arrange a physical visit instead,” she says.

Interxion’s Tapley is also doubtful that virtual tours will completely replace physical tours in the long term because clients get so much out of being able to experience a datacentre in-person.

“When you’re shopping in-person – whether you’re considering buying a new pair of shoes or perhaps a new car – there is something about seeing it in the flesh that can’t entirely be replicated virtually,” he says. “And until technology becomes advanced enough to emulate the tangibility of physical tours, I believe we’re going to see a balance of both.

“It might be that we’re able to address customers at different stages of the buying process with different types of tours. For example, using virtual tours to initially capture prospective customers’ attention and then switching to physical when they want to get a better idea of the inner workings of the specific facility.”

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