Top design trends in data centers: automation, controls, technology

An increasingly data-driven society demands advanced, high-performance data center facilities. Read on to learn the biggest automation and controls challenges, emerging technologies and upcoming trends affecting data centers.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 30, 2019


David Anderson, PE, LEED AP

Senior Mechanical Engineer, Principal

DLR Group



Drew Carré, PE

Senior Electrical Engineer

Kupper Engineering Inc.

Ambler, Pennsylvania


Terry G. Cleis Jr., PE, LEED AP

Vice President

Peter Basso Associates

Troy, Michigan


Matt Koukl, DCEP-G

Principal Project Manager, Mission Critical Market Leader

Affiliated Engineers Inc.

Madison, Wisconsin


Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP





Saahil Tumber, PE, HBDP, LEED AP

Technical Authority

Environmental Systems Design Inc.


CSE: Is your team using building information modeling in conjunction with the architects, trades and owners to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance or measurement and verification.

Tumber: BIM is being used extensively on data center projects throughout their life cycle. Owners and end users are aware of the benefits and typically have detailed requirements and standards for the design and construction team to follow. The aim is for a smooth handover of the BIM model to the facilities team after construction is complete. On a recent project, the facilities team utilized the model handed over by the design and construction team for construction operations building information exchange data files and their computerized maintenance management systems to compile pertinent information of assets such as data sheets, O&M manuals, spare parts, warranty information, etc.

Anderson: BIM is a great tool to design with, allowing all design teams to coordinate their elements sizes and locations. The data centers we are involved in have an abundance of large cooling pipes and hundreds of large power conduits. Being able to coordinate these during the design with the architectural and structural elements validates the space requirements for the mechanical and electrical systems on a daily basis.

In using the BIM 360 tools, we’re working with consultants from offices across the country and we can work together in a live model. This saves valuable design time to bring the completed design to the construction team sooner and the owner’s facility to the market quicker. They like that! Our clients have not requested our design BIM model for long-term operations yet, but we have provided it to the construction team to use it as a starting point for their construction model.


CSE: Has the move toward cloud-based solutions impacted data center design projects?

Koukl: Cloud-based solutions similar to that in many other industries have allowed for enhanced collaboration between project teams. This enhanced collaboration in near real-time allows responses to be provided on a much shorter timeline than in the past and allows easier collaboration across multiple organizations. By using cloud-based solutions we can gain economies of scale with some of the design tools we use to more effectively solve complex problems.

Carré: For clients who have migrated equipment to the cloud, additional white space has become available. Depending on the planned growth or reduction of their loads, this space can be reclaimed for office or other use. If the space cannot be used for other business functions, the space may be left open. In these cases, it is a good idea to study the effects of adding containment or at least air blocks, that prevent HVAC systems from over-cooling the white space. Many clients utilizing cloud services may find that their entire data center can be reduced to a few small pods, which can be deployed either with containerized solutions or within their existing spaces.


CSE: Do you believe cloud computing and hyperscale data centers will replace traditional data centers in the near future?

Rener: Certainly, we have seen the move among commercial corporate entities to move their data needs to the cloud and hyperscale datacenters due to capital expenditure and operating expenditure concerns. However, certain markets retain the use of local owner-funded data centers including health care, government, security, higher education, research and financial segments. In many cases hyperscale data centers are based around single-use internet, search and social-media clients with vast processing needs. Lastly, we are seeing smaller based edge computing to bring rapid processing to local telecommunications locations.

Carré: Not entirely. However, I do believe the trend will continue that the traditional enterprise users’ data centers will continue to shrink as cloud and hyperscale data centers grow. These data centers may be reduced to a handful of racks or greatly reduced in size, but they will not disappear. Depending on the business/owner, I do believe, the cloud may start to be used more for redundancy on certain operations. This would allow an owner to minimize the costs of their data center by reducing their systems to smaller systems with N+1 redundancy as long as they have appropriate cloud backup, essentially using the cloud as a disaster recovery site.

Koukl: I believe that for some organizations a traditional enterprise data center will exist, but on a much smaller scale than if cloud computing were not available. Most organizations will still need some form of a data center on premises to serve local processing needs and other data transport means. For example, our firm uses a large cloud provider for backup of our systems and email. However, we still have small closets with a few cabinets that support some of our systems and storage that is cached locally.

CSE: Do you see expansion of edge-based solutions for data center clients?

Tumber: Edge computing is primed for rapid growth in the coming years, driven by segments such as internet of things, digital content, gaming and other areas that rely on low latency. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, edge computing market size is expected to grow to $6.7 billion by 2022, an annual growth rate exceeding 35 percent. A steady deployment of these data centers is expected in metropolitan markets and repositioning efforts are expected to focus on existing facilities such as warehouses and telecom buildings for housing edge data centers.


CSE: Cybersecurity and vulnerability are increasing concerns. Are you encountering worry/resistance around wireless technology and internet of things as the prevalence of such features increases? How are you responding to these concerns?

Carré: Generally, nothing data center-related is going to share a network (in any way) with a device that has access to the outside world/Internet. Providing that separation prevents a lot of the vulnerability. Wireless and internet of things have been acceptable for metering or other monitoring functions but should be kept on a separate network from any controls or facility-critical operations. I expect this to continue and Internet of things-ready devices may grow in popularity for certain building functions, i.e. metering, lighting, nondata center HVAC, etc.

Tumber: With the advent of wireless technology and internet of things, there are growing concerns related to cybersecurity. Equipment such as chillers, computer room air conditioning, remote terminal units, water filtration skids and others that can connect to the Wi-Fi or cellular network to allow for remote monitoring and control is available. While the technology does offer several benefits, such as real-time data, diagnostic information and fault detection capabilities, adherence to the company’s security protocols can be challenging. It is important to review the capabilities and requirements with the appropriate stakeholders. If the risks outweigh the benefits, the wireless capabilities can be limited or disabled.

Rener: Within corporate clients there is increasing use of Internet of things technologies provided with third party equipment for building automation. Concern over IT security has been raised even when systems use wireless technology other than Wi-Fi. They still connect to the internet at the front end. Many of our government and other secure clients to no permit internet of things devices or connections to the internet though their servers.