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Coronavirus: Microsoft Azure suffers datacentre capacity shortages in Europe

Microsoft is working to “expedite” additional datacentre capacity after reports of users struggling to access resources due to coronavirus demand surge. But how easy will that be amid a global pandemic?

Since the roll-out of social distancing measures by governments across Europe, businesses have had to adapt swiftly to having their largely office-based workforce transform into one that is almost exclusively working remotely.

As previously documented by Computer Weekly in March 2020, this shift in working patterns has led to a surge in demand from enterprises for public cloud-hosted services, and the effects of this are now being keenly felt by datacentre operators.

So much so that public cloud giant Microsoft confirmed in a statement to Computer Weekly that it has introduced metering measures, whereby access to available cloud datacentre capacity is being prioritised for mission-critical user groups and existing customers.

“Due to the unprecedented circumstances around Covid-19 and the need to manage datacentre capacity around the world, non-paid account users, including free trials, student accounts and offers that provide monthly credits, may be unable to leverage new compute resources at this time,” a Microsoft spokesperson said.

“Thank you for your understanding as we implement necessary and prudent measures to maintain service availability and prioritise first responders, health and emergency management services, critical government infrastructure, and existing customers.” 

This explanation follows reports on social media from users of Microsoft’s public cloud platform Azure, who claim to have run into error messages when attempting to deploy virtual machines within its European datacentre regions.

These messages typically contain warnings about datacentre capacity shortages, before urging users to consider hosting their virtual machines in an alternative region where demand for compute resources may not be so constrained.

In a blog post dated 28 March 2020, Microsoft confirmed it was working to “expedite the creation of new capacity” over the coming weeks, as the demand for Azure cloud infrastructure services soars, and use of its other software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings also ramps up.  

For example, the company has seen a significant spike in the use of its online collaboration and communication tool, Teams, as enterprises seek new ways to keep in touch with their employees as they work remotely.

“We have seen a very significant spike in Teams usage, and now have more than 44 million daily users,” said the blog post. “Those users generated over 900 million meeting and calling minutes on Teams daily in a single week.”

Microsoft versus AWS and Google

So how are Microsoft’s contemporaries in the public cloud faring? An Amazon Web Services (AWS) spokesperson directed Computer Weekly to a page on the company’s website that states that it “incorporates pandemic response policies and procedures into its disaster recovery planning” as a matter of routine.

In terms of how its datacentres are holding up to the coronavirus-induced surge in demand for cloud-hosted services, the AWS spokesperson said: “We have taken measures to prepare, and we are confident we will be able to meet customer demands for capacity in response to Covid-19.”

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, the Google Cloud team recently published a blog post setting out the various ways that its portfolio of cloud infrastructure and collaboration tools are being used by governments, education providers, healthcare organisations and retailers during the coronavirus pandemic.

To ensure its infrastructure is up to the job of supporting these use cases, as well as enterprises whose remote workforces are now increasingly relying on its tools to do their jobs, the company has published additional materials about the protective measures it has put in place.

From a capacity perspective, Google used the blog to point out that its preference for kitting out its datacentres with its own proprietary hardware is standing it in good stead.

“As for technical readiness, Google Cloud relies on massive amounts of compute and storage hardware to power your cloud workloads and G Suite,” said the Google Cloud blog post.

“Since much of that hardware is proprietary, we can forecast capacity forward many months to build ahead of demand. We’re monitoring capacity closely and do not foresee shortfalls at this time.

“We have a number of levers we can pull to prevent service disruptions and ensure your critical workloads have access to sufficient capacity to remain available and performant.”

Calling on colocation for added capacity

While Microsoft is the only one of the public cloud big three to explicitly state that it will need to create additional capacity in line with customer demand, it is unlikely to be the only hyperscale cloud giant trying to work out the best way to increase the datacentre resources it can make available to customers.

According to Mitul Patel, head of datacentre research for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at real estate consultancy CBRE, it is highly likely that the hyperscalers will be looking to their colocation partners to help source the capacity they need.

“These companies are running many of the applications that are keeping us all connected in the current environment,” said Patel. “Across Europe, these cloud companies house their IT infrastructure in a mix of self-owned, self-operated datacentres and third-party colocation datacentres. In the UK, this data is stored and processed solely in colocation facilities.”

CBRE’s own research also shows that 80% of the occupied datacentre capacity in Europe is taken up by cloud companies, said Patel.

When it comes to procuring colocation space, the hyperscalers tend to err on the side of caution and buy far more capacity than they need, so many of them are currently weathering the surge in demand for their services well, he added.

“The applications run by these tech giants, such as collaborative tools, streaming services and gaming, are currently seeing a much higher than usual level of usage and therefore their utilisation of datacentre capacity is growing,” said Patel.

“The colocation facilities that host these applications are carefully engineered as part of a wider network, which means that capacity usage can be shared across datacentres and the risk of any downtime is minimised through redundancy.

“Also, these individual facilities are highly secure, efficient, connected buildings run by skilled teams whose job is to make sure there no interruptions to the flow of data and therefore impact on society.”

Even so, analyst data published by datacentre-focused market watcher Danseb Consulting at the end of March 2020 suggests that the hyperscaler community’s apparently insatiable appetite for colocation datacentre capacity is holding firm in the face of the coronavirus.

In the past, colocation facilities have been favoured by operators that need to grow their presence in certain geographies quickly, without spending time acquiring land and dealing with planning permission issues, before pressing ahead with construction.

In the Danseb Consulting research note charting the initial impact coronavirus is having on the colocation market, the firm shared anecdotal data accrued from its subscriber base about how the demand for colocation is faring in the face of the pandemic.

Read more about coronavirus and the datacentre sector

“Anecdotally, many colocation providers are telling us that order enquiries are increasing, or even soaring, in some cases,” said the research note.

“Hyperscaler spend and focus also appears to be remaining strong, with colocation providers expecting deployments to continue, albeit with perhaps some delays due to execution challenges.”

Such challenges include pandemic-induced datacentre hardware supply chain issues, staff shortages and movement restrictions that are making it difficult for some facilities to ensure they can get the people they need on-site at the right time to carry out maintenance and upgrades.

For this reason, Danseb said one of its colocation clients has seen datacentre construction projects put on hold in some markets, but the demand for services pertaining to the planning and engineering of new-builds, as well as the expansion of existing sites, is rising.

On this point, Patel said it is worth nothing that within the UK colocation market alone, there is so much spare, ready-built capacity available for purchase and fit-out that, based on past growth trends, it should sustain the hyperscaler community for several years.

“Should the cloud companies need to procure more capacity in the short term, CBRE research shows that there is currently 4.3 years of capacity available to purchase and fit out if need be in the London colocation market, which is the predominant datacentre hub in the UK,” he said.

“This is based on the five-year average for take-up. The longer-term challenge will be if construction projects are delayed and the cloud companies are unable to expand within the parameters of their existing infrastructure network. The colocation companies are working very hard to reduce the impact of this possibility.”

The fact that demand from hyperscale clients looks set to remain strong for the foreseeable future will be music to the ears of the colocation community, as the Danseb research note also alluded to the fact that they might be losing clients in industries hardest hit by the economic toll of the pandemic.

“In the analysis of the 2008-09 economic crisis, we saw colocation companies typically losing 2-3% of clients to bankruptcy and closure, but certain businesses, particularly those more exposed to areas such as online gambling and e-commerce, saw losses of up to 10%,” said the research note.

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