Getting Your Data Center Started

A Q&A with Andy Oldeman

What is the most important piece of advice for a client starting the planning for a data center?

AO: Seems very obvious, but it needs to be said - make sure you have the right people at the table. We like to work from a series of workshops, where everyone comes in with an open mind. This includes the IT, facilities and operations staff, working alongside the architect, engineer and construction cost expert.  When you have a team together representing different inputs, you can look objectively at information, challenge each other’s assumptions and ask the hard questions.

What questions should be asked?

AO: One important early question concerns uptime. What is the cost to maintain 100% uptime versus the cost of an interruption in data access? Are there some tradeoffs we can make in planning and designing the redundancies to support uptime? Location is another important one. Sometimes it makes more sense to locate the data center remotely, where utility networks are more robust and energy supply more stable. Our job is to lead the client through these questions, and to provide a process to help clients understand the best design options to meet their requirements and budget.

Data centers are expensive facilities to build. How do you go about keeping the cost in check?

AO: Today’s virtualized server technology makes it possible to get a lot more data within the same footprint. This means a lower real estate cost for the owner and a more efficient use of every square foot we design and build. The higher density and server capacity though requires more cooling and power because the new virtual servers generate a lot more heat. This challenge is leading us to develop more innovative engineering designs. Instead of prescriptive approaches based on past benchmarks, we look at each new project and ask: How efficient can we make it?

Crank the Thermostat

One example of this is our ability to use more outside air for cooling instead of relying on mechanical cooling. The EMC data center in Durham, North Carolina is cooled with outdoor air for 226 days per year. By increasing the internal air temperature from the former benchmark of around 60 degrees to 75 or 80 degrees plus using the free outdoor air supplies, EMC will see energy savings of several million dollars over the 10-20 year lifespan of the facility. We have many more ways to help control costs and be creative with new technologies today.

Are there hidden issues during planning and design that show up as problems later?

AO: Water consumption and cost is often overlooked initially. With many parts of the country forecasting chronic shortages in water supply, we can assume that water rates are likely to climb at a fast pace. Including water reuse and recycling is a big consideration in the cooling system selection, so it needs to be part of the planning early on.

In many data centers, we are including stormwater collection and reuse systems to reduce reliance on municipal water supplies. Recycled stormwater can be used to cool mechanical equipment and provide irrigation if needed. On one new data center we just opened, the annual water savings are projected to be 280,000 gallons a year, reducing water use by 50%.

What’s the biggest lesson learned that you can pass along?

AO: It’s a team process. While we can offer experience designing data centers, the project can only succeed when we listen to the owner and learn what they need to achieve their goals.

Big projects often turn on small details, so an open and honest dialogue is essential.

The entire team can then work together to see not only what is obvious or expected, but to imagine what isn’t there and explore new ideas and solutions.