Colocation consolidation: Analysts look at what's driving the feeding frenzy

Sometimes a half-sized shipping container at the base of a cell tower is all you need


Analysis Colocation facilities aren't just a place to drop a couple of servers anymore. Many are quickly becoming full-fledged infrastructure-as-a-service providers as they embrace new consumption-based models and place a stronger emphasis on networking and edge connectivity.

But supporting the growing menagerie of value-added services takes a substantial footprint and an even larger customer base, a dynamic that's driven a wave of consolidation throughout the industry, analysts from Forrester Research and Gartner told The Register.

"You can only provide those value-added services if you're big enough," Forrester research director Glenn O'Donnell said.

The past few months have seen this trend play out en masse, with the latest being private equity firm DigitalBridge Investment Management's take over of datacenter provider Switch Inc in a deal valued at $11 billion.

Switch operates datacenters specializing in high-performance infrastructure. The company completed its fifth Prime datacenter campus in Texas last year, but this is only the latest colo acquisition in recent memory.

"There have been a pile of smaller colocation providers that have been coming together, either being acquired by the big boys, or they've been merging," O'Donnell said.

There's been a flurry of colocation mergers and acquisitions over the past few months. Here's just a sampling: NorthC acquired Netrics, LightEdge bought NFinit, EdgeConnex made off with GTN, Unitas Global snapped up INAP, VPLS nabbed a Carrier-1 datacenter in Texas, and Digital 9 absorbed Finnish colo Ficolo and Volta's London datacenters.

It's the cloud! Except, it's also not

So what's driving this ramp in M&A activity? You might think it's the cloud, and while there's certainly some truth to that, O'Donnell says it's not the full story.

"I always like to remind people that just because cloud is so big and growing does not mean the datacenter is dead," he said, adding that to some extent cloud has actually driven people to colos more than it has hurt them.

"I won't give cloud all of the credit, but cloud certainly proved that this is a viable way of doing things," O'Donnell added.

What the cloud has managed to do is force colocation providers to innovate around new consumption models and platform services, while simultaneously expanding their reach closer to the edge.

The major cloud providers operate a relatively small number of extremely large datacenters located in key metros around the world. By contrast, colocation providers like Equinix and Digital Realty operate hundreds of datacenters around the globe.

This reach is not only one of the big attractions of colocation providers, Gartner analyst Matthew Brisse said, but it also turns out to be one of the biggest drivers of M&A activity.

Location, location, location

"Size matters in this business because customers, especially multinational customers, want datacenters in a lot of different places," O'Donnell said.

According to Brisse, when enterprises start looking into colocation facilities, their main concern is getting workloads spun up in the right place. "The main reason that people go to colos, is location, location, location," he said.

And this demand has only accelerated as colocation providers look to offer services closer to the edge.

"We see the colocation providers starting to build out their edge offering as opposed to a simple hoteling experience for your infrastructure," Brisse said.

These aren't necessarily large datacenter facilities in the traditional sense, either, he explained. These can be as small as a half-sized shipping container positioned at the base of a cell tower.

Smaller regional colocation providers also serve an important role because they tend to build in places the larger players overlook, Brisse explained.

"A lot of companies don't have the luxury of sitting right next to an Equinix facility," he said. "There's lots of opportunities out there for colocation market in totality."

And as colocation providers inch closer to the edge, Brisse argues networking and automation are only becoming more important.

Where networking plays in

One of the most potent value adds offered by major colocation providers today is networking.

"As you look at the colocation services, the networking services have become a pretty big deal to differentiate them from just being a simple chunk of real estate to plop your servers," O'Donnell said.

And here again the larger players have the advantage. "Networking connectivity requires a big provider with lots of locations connected by their own fiber," he added.

These backbone networks allow workloads running in a datacenter on one side of the country to communicate with another without ever going out over the open internet.

But it's not just networking between colocation datacenters that's important. Many of these colocation facilities are located directly adjacent to the major cloud and software-as-a-service providers.

"So AWS, for example, or Microsoft Azure might be in the same building as you and connecting to it is just a matter of connecting to a different cage in that same building," O'Donnell said. "Smaller players can't do that, but the bigger guys can."

However, as customers increasingly turn to colocation providers for edge compute and networking, complexity rears its ugly head, Brisse argues.

In the future, "we're going to have lots of datacenters everywhere; we're going to have lots of data distributed in the right location; we're going to have edge facilities everywhere bringing data close to the edge," he said. "It is not going to be possible for humans to monitor all of that activity."

So, in addition to growing their footprint and network services, Brisse believes colos will also need to invest in AI operations capabilities to manage this complexity.

More consolidation to come

Both Brisse and O'Donnell expect the colocation market to continue to consolidate as macroeconomic forces put a pressure on smaller players.

"If the economic troubles we're seeing are persistent, I think we will see an acceleration of this kind of [M&A] activity," O'Donnell said.

It's important to remember that while colos may look like tech companies on the inside, on the books, they're really real estate investment trusts, he said, adding that in the current economic environment, colos are a comparatively safe bet in an otherwise dismal commercial real estate market.

"Colo is a hot market and getting hotter," O'Donnell said. ®


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