December 2011

Data Center Construction

A Match Made in Heaven: Bringing Together Engineering, Architecture and Construction

By Paul Mihm, Rubicon Professional Services

There’s no denying it: Today’s data center is the center of the universe for most companies. In the increasingly competitive global marketplace, the ability to manage the vast amounts of business-related information is of utmost importance. Since many core business initiatives rely on the efficiency and effectiveness of the data center, companies are taking a closer look into building the most powerful data centers – without compromising the bottom line.

But there’s a fine line you need to walk. You must make smart choices in the design, planning and construction of these infrastructures – or risk losing ground to the competition. The real key is to marry engineering, architectural design and construction up front. The legacy approach is no longer effective and proves to slow the process and create expenses that can be eliminated.

Caution: Challenges Ahead
So, construction is happening. Design and build. That’s easy, right? Not so fast. There are a host of challenges that lie ahead and you need to step carefully before moving forward with massive data center constructions and upgrades.

Companies assume, incorrectly I might add, that data center construction is an easy process. You hire an engineer, and he or she, likely plans a facility based on a rough outline of performance capabilities and industry standard/accepted design practices. But what fails to happen is proper consulting and planning — because not all designs are realistic. Companies don’t always have the facilities and designs necessary to build the dream data center nor the capital to adhere to unrealistic standards. Oftentimes, they go back to the drawing board to design an infrastructure to meet capital expectations while adjusting system design complexities, reliability or maintainability. Obviously, this makes for costly delays in time-to-market and budget overruns.

Being Realistic with Data Center Construction
Recently, I met with the CEO of a leading provider of interconnection, co-location and business exchange services. The company’s data center was to be constructed in an Atlanta landmark built in 1918. The goal was to increase power delivery from 45watts per square foot to a power density consistent with today’s data center standards. The problem was, since the location was a high-rise nestled in the heart of downtown Atlanta, there was no available space to create equipment yards for generators or any other electrical/ mechanical equipment.

The company’s first mistake was going directly to an engineering firm. Because the firm didn’t have experience in matching their needs to the space available, the engineering firm said it couldn’t be done – the building wasn’t large enough, did not have enough space, and with no ability to fit generators and heat exchange equipment at the location.

The company needed a plan for construction within the constraints of available space. This required an approach that not only brought engineering to the table – but also architectural design and construction. Only collaboration on three fronts at once – and from the very beginning – would ensure success.

Getting There
Before taking the leap into data center construction, you need to take a step back. Those who construct shopping malls don’t necessarily understand data centers; partner with a vendor specializing in data center construction, and with a proven track record.

You need an innovative approach bringing together engineers, contractors, architects and equipment vendors. Companies like Rubicon Professional Services can act as that central point of contact, representing the interests of both owners and contractors. Rubicon not only conducts feasibility studies, but also helps with site selection, planning, equipment integration, construction and commissioning. This contact acts as a voice of reason in facility location, size, scope and engineering requirements – helping to obtain greater operating efficiencies and improved ROI. Rubicon has direct contracts with all the equipment suppliers and once the final plan is formalized can begin the hardware procurement process. Infrastructure equipment typically has long lead-times that impacts the schedule – waiting on final drawings that may or may not work can cause schedule delays and increase cost to the total budget. Rubicon has solved this issue by establishing buying power with all the major players in the industry and pre-purchases equipment early based on solid schematic designs that conform to design parameters and constructability considerations.

Rubicon’s highly professional team of experts — from registered architects, and professional engineers – clearly differentiates the company from the rest of the pack. Rubicon possesses the experience in data center development to understand critical path design issues against equipment procurements for strategic decisions to sustain a viable product development cycle while leveraging prudent capital sources – a strategy that results in no change on equipment orders and drastic savings for the customer.

For the service provider mentioned earlier, Rubicon maximized a utility service upgrade with heat rejection infrastructure systems, available roof space, maximized watt density per square foot of white space and introduced dual power paths so as to maximize reliability to meet the client’s business model. Rubicon developed a basis of design taking into account regional climate data, utility rates, structural capabilities, available square footage and shaft space to plan for a 200 watt per square foot center with an infrastructure system that allowed for an additional floor to be developed at 125 W/SF. Moreover, multiple paths were planned on both the electrical and mechanical systems to provide for concurrent maintainability. CFD and failure analysis demonstrated the design was a pragmatic heat exchange methodology that optimized equipment configurations over typical rule of thumb approaches and afforded the client maximum cabinet arrangements for optimal revenue planning. The design established valuable roof/interior space for power generation equipment, and utility modifications allowed for load balancing throughout the facility.

Taking the Next Step
The market for new data center construction is exploding as companies deal with information overload, virtualization, cloud computing and refreshing legacy facilities. But before setting out and planning these next-generation infrastructures, be cautious. Partner with a firm that can effectively merge design, engineering and construction to achieve optimal results which include: speed to market, cost-savings and a product that maximizes the space you are working with. Selecting a vendor carefully could save significant time and money.

As industry analyst firm Infonetics points out: “As convergence and virtualization increasingly take over more functions in data centers, you need more powerful network equipment. Particularly when critical assets are involved, when a data center goes down, you can imagine how important that can be.”

Infonetics also estimates the worldwide data center equipment grew 50% to almost $8 billion in 2010. The firm reports sales of purpose-built data center switches doubled quarter-over-quarter in 2010. For 2011, Infonetics believes North American enterprises will increase data center infrastructure spending by 25%.

Building Next-Generation Data Centers
This data center evolution is fueling a flood of new data center construction projects. A recent survey by Digital Realty reported nearly half of 300 companies surveyed said they will “definitely or probably expand their data centers.”

And companies are responding – building cutting-edge data centers to get ahead. Recently, Microsoft’s General Manager of Data Center Research took a stab at sizing the market for data center construction. In his study, Christian Brady estimated the global market for data center construction would reach $78 billion by 2020. The US market alone will hit $18 billion over the same timeframe.

As the market continues to grow and evolve, and the need for reliable high density data centers increases, only those companies who optimize their building space for the vast infrastructure required to support them will enjoy a competitive edge.

About the Author
Paul Mihm is executive vice president for Rubicon Professional Services, a leading national provider of full-service construction management, energy management, consulting, and engineering services for mission-critical facilities.