Driving data center design: Automation and controls

In the information age, data centers can be the beating heart of not just a building, but an entire global corporation. Building automation systems and controls are key to ensuring constant uptime.


Andrew Baxter, PE, Principal/MEP Engineering Director, Page, Austin, TexasBrandon Kingsley, PE, CxA, CEM Project Manager, Primary Integration Solutions Inc., Charlotte, N.C.Dwayne Miller, PE, RCDD, CEO, JBA Consulting Engineers, Hong Kong


  • Andrew Baxter, PE, Principal/MEP Engineering Director, Page, Austin, Texas
  • Brandon Kingsley, PE, CxA, CEM Project Manager, Primary Integration Solutions Inc., Charlotte, N.C.
  • Keith Lane, PE, RCDD, NTS, RTPM, LC, LEED AP BD+C, President/Chief Engineer, Lane Coburn & Associates LLC, Seattle
  • Dwayne Miller, PE, RCDD, CEO, JBA Consulting Engineers, Hong Kong

Engineering firms like Page are engaged to handle data centers for a wide range of clients—Fortune 500 corporations, municipalities, universities, and other entities. This is the University of Texas at Austin Data Center Consolidation Project. Courtesy: Thomas McConnell, photographer, PageCSE: When designing monitoring and control systems, what factors do you consider?

Integration of all the different monitoring and control systems should be one of the designer's primary considerations. Usually the electrical power management system (EPMS) is a different manufacturer and protocol than the BAS, and there always seems to be a need for the two systems to communicate with each other. During preliminary construction, our submittal review is intended to identify integration issues, for example, whether a translator is needed to enable the generator to communicate with the BAS, or a Modbus converter is needed to integrate the two systems. During testing and commissioning, we do a point-to-point verification to ensure that every point and all the alarms associated with that equipment are on the graphical user interface. 

Baxter: Systems compatibility, communications protocols, system capacity both in speed of throughput and storage, ease of understanding and use for the owner after the project is complete, and system support both locally and globally. 

CSE: What types of cutting-edge control systems have you specified into data centers? What type of pushback are you receiving from the IT/facilities team, contractors, clients, or other team members?

Baxter: Fully integrated mechanical and electrical controls and monitoring, accessed through a single front end system and through Web-based systems. The clients are asking for this, and it's not really something we are seeing much of a pushback on as almost everyone sees the overall project value, not just during construction and commissioning but also in long-term use by the owner.

Kingsley: We are still seeing traditional systems being specified and installed because most IT clients want tried-and-true systems for reliability. At the same time, clients are starting to evaluate cutting-edge solutions, such as eliminating the BAS and enabling the servers to control temperature, humidity, and fan speeds.

CSE: What types of smart building projects have you worked on?

Baxter: The Chicago project used a fully integrated control and monitoring system for mechanical, electrical, fire alarm/protection, and lighting systems. The mechanical systems used BACnet Internet protocol (IP) as the primary communications protocol while the remainder used Modbus IP. This communications protocol separation worked very well at keeping the systems separate and contractors working without interfering with each other's work product. The challenge was that because all protocols were IP-based, the network had to be up, running, and commissioned before the final integration could begin, putting more of an emphasis on moving that part of the system forward in the construction schedule.

CSE: Discuss the trends of convergence and automation within building technology, including controls of all systems within one network.

Lane: The convergence of all building technology to the data center has created significant stress for those managing the IT environment. The CIO now owns data associated with the entire facility operation. Systems such as lighting controls, security, surveillance, audiovisual, temperature controls, telephony, etc., are now all managed by IT departments. In the past many of the systems were decentralized and deployed as discrete stand-alone systems. With so much of the facility systems and associated business operations relying on the data center, the critical nature of the power distribution and cooling is obvious. If the data center loses power or fails due to cooling or other infrastructure issues, business operations cease. The CIO and the IT staff have to become much more educated about the critical infrastructure and the associated operation.

Kingsley: We have not seen this in action yet because it appears that there is still a lot of work to be done by the manufacturers to perfect this type of system or network. We are still seeing separate systems for BAS, EPMS, security, etc. Occasionally, the BAS and EPMS will be the same system. A single building backbone network for all of the systems is not uncommon. BACnet seems to be the industry standard for mechanical systems. While integration of BACnet devices is still not perfect, it has greatly improved as manufacturers work out the bugs and design their controllers to ASHRAE's latest BACnet standard. That said, hardwire control of critical equipment is still a must for data centers because a network is not 100% reliable. For example, in a variable frequency drive, the critical components (start/stop, speed, and alarms) usually are hardwired but components that require only monitoring, not control or alarming capabilities, have network connections. As commissioning agents, we look for those critical hardwire connections, and if we don't see them, we will point it out as a reliability precaution.

Baxter: We are definitely seeing a trend to bring more and more of the building automation and monitoring systems into one network. We are seeing this even more on the enterprise level where the owner has control over the network management. That is also one of the biggest challenges, though, for new builds as that network needs to be up and running very early, and owners and IT groups are not always ready for that kind of advancement of schedule.

CSE: How has the Internet of Things (IoT) been incorporated into a recent project? Describe the coordination of products and systems.

Baxter: The BAS and power monitoring systems for the Chicago-based Fortune 100 project used IP-based devices for the individual control and monitoring functions for the project. We are seeing IP-based communications for equipment available more and more.

Kingsley: We have not applied the IoT or seen it applied yet.

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