How to design data centers: Building automation systems

An expert panel provides engineering and design tips about building automation systems, control and technology in this Q&A

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 29, 2021


  • Peter Czerwinski, PE, Uptime ATD, Mechanical Engineer/Mission Critical Technologist, Jacobs, Pittsburgh
  • Garr Di Salvo, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal – Americas Data Center Leader, Arup, New York
  • Scott Gatewood, PE, Electrical Engineer/Project Manager, Regional Energy Sector Leader, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
  • Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP, Mission Critical Leader, SmithGroup, Chicago

From your experience, what systems within data centers are benefiting from automation that previously might not have?

Scott Gatewood: Air management automation and controls technology have experienced great improvements. Distributed sensors can now modulate airflows to achieve the most efficient heat transfers. Integrating per cabinet energy consumption across the data hall can complete the analytics and allow our clients to not only optimize system performance, but also permit planning for future deployments.

Garr Di Salvo: We’re starting to realize some of the promises of data center infrastructure management not only in enhancing environmental and energy management, but also in asset and change tracking. Two other areas that I believe still offer tremendous opportunities are maintenance — using systems monitoring to provide predictive analysis and preventative maintenance interventions — and capacity planning — where actual, real-time use is used to evaluate a system’s ability to handle additional loads.

Peter Czerwinski: Both power and cooling automation are beneficial to a data center project. Although fault-tolerant designs can be costly to implement, the automatic rerouting of power and/or cooling during a system failure helps a data center owner maintain their uptime.

How is building information modeling being used in data center design?

Garr Di Salvo: Arup has been using BIM on all our projects for many years for 3D visualization and clash detection. We’re now working with several clients to incorporate construction phasing, asset management and commissioning information in data center project BIM models as well. Some are also using BIM information in costing and quantity surveying.

Cybersecurity and hacking are increasing concerns — are you seeing such concerns impacting your work on data centers?

Scott Gatewood: Cybersecurity has always been in the minds of our clients as infrastructure management networks were physically separated. With the revelations of the 2010 emergence of the Stuxnet virus, cybersecurity was thrust forward as a critical design oversight requirement. And since then, cybersecurity risks and their downtime costs have received much needed attention. The industries tracking data suggest that in 2015, the cost of downtime from cyberthreats exceeded those from power and cooling infrastructure downtime. Today, the chief information security officer has a valued seat at the table.

What smart devices are data center owners requesting and how are you meeting these needs?

Garr Di Salvo: IEEE 802.11s, 802.15.4 and IEC 61850 mesh networking devices, like intelligent rack-mounted power distribution units and temperature/humidity sensors, eliminate the need for wiring and controllers, facilitating quicker deployment of monitoring within the data center. When performing site surveys at existing facilities with limited monitoring capability, we use temporary networked sensors to get better insight into facility operations. Smart switches and RFID are also being used to help track assets and capacity within many facilities.

Cybersecurity and hacking are increasing concerns — are you seeing such concerns impacting your work on data centers?

Garr Di Salvo: With the rise of phishing and ransomware attacks and specter of state-sponsored AI attacks, cybersecurity professionals face many challenges. It’s likely we will see further legislative protections for consumers, like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act. At present, most organizations have set up firewall, VPN and DMZ protections and are making a move to multifactor authentication for users. We’re seeing more stringent requirements for physical security within the data center as well — from enhanced restrictions on use of data equipment within the facility, to new requirements for screening and access control.