Sureel Choksi

President & CEO, Vantage Data Centers

IG Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jasmine Bedi discusses with Sureel the road ahead for Vantage and the changing trends of the data center industry.

Vantage recently completed the first phase of a multi-story data center in Ashburn. Do you see this trend of data centers being built “vertically” in other markets as well?

Given the recent constraints on land in Loudoun County, Vantage and many other providers have built vertically two stories, or in some cases three stories. Historically, there was a view that land was not a constraint in Ashburn and in other markets, however there are markets like Santa Clara, which is Vantage’s home market, where land has been constrained for many years. What started as two-story data centers five years ago, quickly migrated to four-story data centers. In fact, the norm for what we built in Santa Clara and some other markets now are multi-stories.

When designing and building a multi-story data center, did you face any challenges? And how did Vantage overcome those challenges?

The technical challenges are fairly limited and straightforward with multi-story data centers. Logical challenges of ensuring that when you lay out a multi-story data center, whether it be two stories in Ashburn or four in Santa Clara, is that you think about the customer experience, amenities, how they get from the freight elevator to their server room or their data hall, where the offices, conference rooms and other amenities are located, to make the experience a positive one for customers. We solve those challenges by taking a customer lens first in terms of how we design the facilities. We ensure that the customer experience from the time that they enter the security entrance to when they get to the data hall or any of the amenities, is a positive one. That’s whether they’re on the first floor or second floor, or in the case of Santa Clara, the third or fourth floor.

You have experience being a CFO and CMO to now a CEO. Can you share how these roles have shaped your career?

I started my career with finance in investment banking and venture capital. After graduating college in 1997, I joined a startup called Level 3, which went on to be one of the leading fiber providers. I spent a decade there during a period of high growth, and then the dot com bubble burst followed by consolidation. When I joined, there were about 75 employees and grew to about 7,000-8,000. This gave me an opportunity to be involved in a number of different functions. In the financial area, I was the treasurer and then the CFO.  I eventually moved into the operating and business side in different roles. I led business units, being the head of the wholesale business, the largest business for Level 3. Later I became the CMO. That was an invaluable experience with different phases of hyper growth, some contraction, consolidation, and some new product development, going through a variety of different positions in terms of just learning different aspects of the business. We often think that we know everything that’s going on in a different part of the company or that we understand it, once you step into it you get that diverse set of experiences, often there’s still a lot that can be learned. This was really helpful in preparing me for the CEO role at Vantage.

Which role is your favorite?

The CEO role is by far the most interesting, but it’s one that requires a high level of preparation over the years and different experiences in order for it to be an enjoyable role. I love it because I get to work with really amazing people and customers, solve big problems and be part of a team effort where we can determine where the priorities are, and what’s important to our customers. Every day is an adventure, with different problems, different opportunities, that come up literally day after day, week after week, which makes it more interesting.

Does the recent acquisition of 4Degrees in Canada shift Vantage’s product strategy in terms of offering colocation in the U.S. or do you plan to offer wholesale in Canada?

4Degrees was an important transaction for Vantage. Montreal and Quebec City were markets that we had identified over a year ago as being very important markets for our customers. Instead of acquiring companies, we typically acquire land and build greenfield in a campus-style environment. But in the case of Canada being our first foray outside the U.S., given the language differences where the primary language is French, there was real value in acquiring a company with a great team to get us started. The vast majority of the business that we acquired is wholesale, with some retail customers as well.

From a Product Roadmap perspective, the plan is to continue to offer a wholesale product focused on hyperscale customers. In Canada, we will continue to build on the wholesale leadership that 4Degrees has as well as continue to serve the retail customers. We don’t plan any shift in strategy. We like 4Degrees and they have given us a head-start in a high-growth market.

Vantage Santa Clara Data Center

Can you give us your views on the latest trends that you see impacting the data center industry?

We continue to see growth and exponential scaling of cloud and hyperscale customers who expect high-quality solutions delivered in a rapid timeframe. Cloud represents the largest source of demand for the wholesale industry. The time to market implication and being the enabler of their revenue growth, is becoming even more important.

Another trend is Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the series of workloads and applications that are incredibly computationally intensive with high-density requirements. The amount of data that is required to support these kinds of applications is astronomical, and our ability as an industry to build and operate data centers that can accommodate such workloads is in the forefront.

Lastly, customers are looking to a smaller number of data center providers to be able to serve their needs across multiple markets. Sales cycles are long, requirements are large, deals are competitive, and existing relationships in one or more markets can be leveraged across multiple markets.

Our readers would love to know about your passions and how you achieve work-life balance. It’s always a challenge when you’re so highly passionate and engaged in a dynamic business environment. Maintaining work-life balance is critically important. I’m married, we have two boys 14 and 11. It’s really important that we spend time together as a family and the way we do that is we love to travel. We love to ski and play tennis and basketball. As much as there is travel, there are long nights and very long days for me. I wouldn’t say I always do the balancing perfectly and wonder if sometimes work becomes the overwhelming priority to the exclusion of some personal commitments. The best way to perform in a business environment like ours is to try to strike that balance, and that’s a continual focus for me.