25 July 2011

It all started once we’d made the decision to build our own data centre. Until this point, we’d leased data centres and filled 3 in Manchester alone, along with a significant number of racks in Telehouse, London.

The facilities are fine if you just have a few racks and pop down every now and again. However, we’d grown to around 300, which requires a large team working around the clock and operating in the buildings. The facilities are not conducive to a happy working environment. They are cold, noisy and uncomfortable and, as we did not control the building, it proved impossible to raise the standards to those we have at head office.

We had to fight to get a kettle into the building, then a table, and after a stalemate over a microwave, I realised that although you can attempt to influence decisions and people might change for a short period, they inevitably revert back to their core traits when they get comfortable or put under pressure. My suppliers simply had a different vision to mine and whilst I respected it, I wanted to create something different.

From my perspective, I believe that there is always another level to everything we do. There has to be. Even when you have a breakthough moment, there is someone somewhere doing it better than you. You either compete or die. And so the cycle continues. I wanted to find this other level. I wanted to put a stop to the tribulations our DC engineers were encountering.

The project was simple: create something that is more “environmentally” friendly, both to the planet and to the people who work within them.

However, every site we found that was perfect for our new data centre came back with the same answer from the United Utilities.

“There is not enough power available.”

We were given this answer to 22 preferred sites. It was explained to me that we require to more electricity to power our network than all the hospitals in Manchester combined.

Now, there is an argument stating that the internet is helping reduce emissions, and people are now able to do more from home, communicating better with people all round the globe. It’s an argument that I should support because it protrays UKFast in a positive light. Can you imagine the power saved from the millions of time and energy saving ideas of every UKFast client combined?

However, it doesn’t wash. I don’t know about any of you but I am not slowing down in other areas of my life. If anything, I am busier. The mobile devices and information on tap from all these “time saving” gadgets just make us busier!

Either way, without power there could be no data centre. So, for a number of years we settled, focussing on our core business and building our cash reserves.

Sure enough, the problem didn’t go away; it just got bigger. Our 1000 servers soon became 2000, which became 4000 and then 6000. In the last year, we have taken the 6000 t0 10,000 and in 2012 UKFast is on target to to add a further 10,000. And as our clients grow so does our need for electricity.

I woke up one day and decided that nothing was going to stand in our way of progress. We took one of the sites we preferred and agreed that we’d take some of the £2m we’d saved and use it for the electricity dig and substation. From the initial £450,000 quote, the actual cost of bringing the power to the new UKFast DC ate up £1.1m after we’d finished building the substation with all the associated costs.

However, the game was on. We now had our first building and, with roads being dug up all round Manchester for power and dark fibre, for the first time in my life, I sat in traffic jams savouring every minute, knowing that with every shovel they were busy improving the UKFast network.

The next move was designing the building. It had to have the technical space to power the equipment to the very highest standard but it also required a space for people. Somewhere comfortable for them to operate and a place to relax.

We worked out that one of the problems for the people in the DC was the lack of human contact and interaction for the small team that worked around the clock. So we designed a training facility on site and built it in the roof space. A place where all new recruits now arrive eager to learn and start their journey at UKFast. Rather than the old Induction process, where the new starters go for a tour of the DC, we reversed the process and the new starters now do a tour of City Tower.

We also got a number of requests for people to work at the facility which proved to me we had done something right, so we moved the team who provision our solutions there too, giving everyone car park spaces with their names on.

We also added a “Clean Room” to the facility so that we have the ability to recover data in the event a disk gets corrupted, a valuable service when confronted with an issue in the dead of night.

A great many of our issues trying to accurately plan our growth are now vastly simplified and what started with a facility to house just our own operation rapidly developed into offshoots.

In the last 3 years, my unit price for space and power have more than doubled. Our profits would have been wiped out if we’d not taken control. But I realised that the same is happening to others in our industry who require similar technical space. I was hearing rumours of businesses getting bullied and beaten up at renewal negotiations with one of my key suppliers, so when one of our contracts came up for renewal I took the trouble to engage with the Managing Director personally.

After experiencing what I can only describe as the worst customer service experience in the history of my 24 years as a business man, I realised I had a duty to build more of these facilities for anyone else needing space in Manchester.

The result: we now build Data Centres as well as filling them with dedicated servers and cloud infrastructure. Our list of latest recruits includes electrical engineers, a building company and  a General Council with plenty of experience of digging up roads and wayleaves after heading up the legal team at Orange for a decade.

It’s amazing what can happen from a single meeting. 12 years ago, UKFast was born after we experienced poor customer service. We didn’t have a penny back then, and we have been valued at in excess of £70m.

To quote Ross Warburton, “every businessman needs someone to hate” and whilst I don’t hate any one person, I certainly hated the way I had been treated during that week of negotiations with our supplier. The day after we resigned the agreement, I acquired 3 more buildings to turn into data centres, which will be ready before the year is out.

My new goal is to become the largest supplier of Data Centre space in the UK with in 10 years.

What started as a power struggle is about to result in one.

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