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Getting real on colocation

Of late, I’ve had a lot of people ask me why my near-term forecast for the colocation market in the United States is so much lower (in many cases, half the growth rate) when compared with those produced by competing analyst firms, Wall Street, and so forth.

Without giving too much information (as you’ll recall, Gartner likes its bloggers to preserve client value by not delving too far into details for things like this), the answer to that comes down to:

  1. Gartner’s integrated forecasting approach
  2. Direct insight into end-user buying behavior
  3. Tracking the entire market, not just the traditional “hot” colo markets

I’ve got the advantage of the fact that Gartner producing forecasts for essentially the full range of IT-related “stuff”. If I’ve got a data center, I’ve got to fill it with stuff. It needs servers, network equipment, and storage, and those things need semiconductors as their components. It’s got to have network connectivity (and that means carrier network equipment for service providers, as well as equipment on the terminating end). It’s got to have software running on those servers. Stuff is a decent proxy for overall data center growth. If people aren’t buying a lot of stuff, their data center footprint isn’t growing. And when they’re buying stuff, it’s important to know if it’s replacing other stuff (freeing up power and space), or if it’s new stuff that’s going to drive footprint or power growth.

Collectively, analysts at Gartner take over a quarter-million client inquiries a year, an awful of lot of them related to purchasing decisions of one sort or another. We also do direct primary research in the form of surveys. So when we forecast, we’re not just listening to vendors tell us what they think their demand is; we’re also judging demand from the end-user (buyer) side. My colleagues and I, who collectively cover data center construction, renovation, leasing, and colocation (as well as things like hosting and data center outsourcing), have a pretty good picture of what our clientele are thinking about when it comes to procuring data center space, in addition to the degree to which end-user thinking informs our forecast for the stuff that goes into data centers.

Because of our client base, which not only include IT buyers dispersed throughout the world, but a lot of vendors and investors, we watch not just the key colocation markets where folks like Equinix have set up shop, but everywhere anyone does colo, which is getting to be an awful lot of places. If you’re judging the data center market by what’s happening in Equinix Cities or even Savvis Cities, you’re missing a lot.

If I’m going to believe in gigantic growth rates in colocation, I have to believe that one or more of the following things is true:

  1. IT stuff is growing very quickly, driving space and/or power needs
  2. Substantially more companies are choosing colo over building or leasing
  3. Prices are escalating rapidly
  4. Renewals will be at substantially higher prices than the original contracts

I don’t think, in the general case, that these things are true. (There are places where they can be true, such as with dot-com growth, specific markets where space is tight, and so on.) They’re sufficiently true to drive a colo growth rate that is substantially higher than the general “stuff that goes into data centers” growth rate, but not enough to drive the stratospheric growth rates that other analysts have been talking about.

Note, though, that this is market growth rate. Individual companies may have growth rates far in excess or far below that of the market.

I could be wrong, but pessimism plus the comprehensive approach to forecasting has served me well in the past. I came through the dot-com boom-and-bust with forecasts that turned out to be pretty much on the money, despite the fact that every other analyst firm on the planet was predicting rates of growth enormously higher than mine.

(Also, to my retroactive amusement: Back then, I estimated revenue figures for WorldCom that were a fraction of what they reported, due to my simple inability to make sense of their reported numbers. If you push network traffic, you need carrier equipment, as do the traffic recipients. And traffic goes to desktops and servers, which can be counted, and you can arrive at reasonable estimates of how much bandwidth each uses. And so on. Everything has to add up to a coherent picture, and it simply didn’t. It didn’t help that the folks at WorldCom couldn’t explain the logical discrepancies, either. It just took a lot of years to find out why.)

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