Data center projects require extraordinary planning, technical expertise

By Fred Jaeckle and Brian Nuehring
03:27 PM
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The idea of creating a new data center or expanding an existing one brings to mind futuristic images of computer experts working with dazzling high-tech equipment to feed their ever-increasing need for data processing capabilities. While the end result for many organizations is a sleek new facility humming with machines and activity, none of it would be possible without an extraordinary level of upfront planning and teamwork involving many technical experts and a knowledgeable construction manager/general contractor (CM/GC) to lead the process.

Most data centers today are designed and built to address tomorrow’s information processing needs. Given the complexities and new technologies impacting most industries, anticipating the future needs of a new data center is no easy task. The healthcare industry provides an excellent example.

Healthcare systems are among the fastest-growing users of data centers. Automated medical records keeping, electronic imaging, surgical robotics, advanced telecommunications, increasingly sophisticated medical procedures and multi-location facilities are just some of the recent developments that directly impact the IT support requirements of nearly every hospital and hospital system.

No matter the industry involved, the first and most important step in building a new or expanded data center is a commitment to careful planning and collaboration among its many stakeholders. At the very least this should involve the organization’s IT department leadership, its facilities management department, and the project’s CM/GC, architect and data center planning consultants.

The first step is to determine and clearly define the needs and goals of the data center, in both the short term and the longer term. There are many important and intertwining considerations to be determined in the pre-construction phase of a data center project, including:
•    Physical site selection (available site, affordablity, convenience, access to power sources and landlines)
•    Anticipated computing load, data storage requirements and related equipment needs
•    Security requirements and tier ratings (vulnerability to natural disaster, terrorism acts, regulatory and legal requirements)
•    Number of years the data center will fulfill the organization’s planned needs
•    Migration plan from current data facilities to the new/expanded facilities
•    Capability for future equipment and operational upgrades within the planned facility
•    Mechanical systems and physical plant requirements to support the planned facility.

The planning team must make these and other important decisions, and resolve the competing (and often conflicting) situations that accompany these decisions. Once this is accomplished, the team’s attention shifts to operational planning.

As data centers become bigger and more sophisticated, they require more power and generate much more heat per square foot than today’s facilities. There are ‘green’ equipment choices now available to help mitigate the operating costs of data centers, such as higher voltage European-style equipment that operates on less amperage and requires less electricity than traditional American-made equipment.
Power needs and heat generation also has major implications for data floor design and usage, as well as cooling, electrical and power systems designs. Keeping data centers cooled is no easy task, particularly when the computing equipment and floor layout creates numerous ‘hot spots’ that must be addressed.

Air and water-based cooling systems are both available, although the water-based systems are now in greater demand due to their cooling efficiency and lower overall energy usage. Both options have ‘green’ features, such as re-use and re-circulation of air and water. However, air-based cooling systems do require the use of chemical refrigerants. The design and implementation of these systems requires a contractor with a strong sense of mechanical, electrical and plumbing expertise.

A knowledgeable and experienced CM/GC can play a vitally important role in the planning and construction of a successful data center. The planning team members can have a natural bias and expertise in their area of specialty, such as the IT gurus, but may lack the facilities or mechanical knowledge to make fully informed decisions. An experienced general contractor can help create the project’s parameters, help each planning team member understand and connect with the needs of the other team members, and lead the client through all necessary and relevant issues and decisions. An experienced general contractor can also help tie-in the data center to future physical changes planned on the client’s campus, thus creating a complete campus-wide interface process.

Construction of a data center also requires the purchase of significant information technology hardware and equipment not found in most commercial construction projects. Many such components require long lead times. Understanding the very high level of sophistication and complexities involved in data centers can only come from experience.

Only when all of the pre-construction planning and decisions have been made can the layout, design and construction of the new facility begin to move forward.

Fred Jaeckle is vice president of pre-construction and estimating, and Brian Nuehring is director of estimating, for S.M. Wilson & Co. S.M. Wilson has completed several new data center projects, including the Sisters of Mercy Health System in Missouri, the Community Health Network in Indianapolis and the Schneider Electric/APC ‘Learning Center’ in O’Fallon, Mo.