Analyzing data centers

Data is the lifeblood of any business or organization—which makes a data center a facility’s beating heart. Here, engineers with experience on data center projects show how to succeed on such facilities, and how to keep your finger on the pulse of data center trends.


Respondents(left to right): Robert C. Eichelman, EYP Architecture and Engineering; Karl Fenstermaker, Southland Engineering; Bill Kosik, exp; Kenneth Kutsmeda, Mission Critical; Keith Lane, Lane Coburn & Associates LLC; Brian Rener, SmithGroupJJR; Mark Suski, JENSEN HUGHES; Saahil Tumber, Environmental Systems Design; John Yoon, McGuire Engineers Inc.


CSE: What’s the No. 1 trend you see today in data center design?

Karl Fenstermaker: ASHRAE’s thermal guidelines for data processing centers is becoming more accepted and implemented in the industry. Operating over a wider range of temperature and humidity conditions requires more attention to detail during the design and operation of the data center, so as a result, we are seeing more leveraging of advanced technology tools, such as computational fluid design for thermal modeling and data center infrastructure management (DCIM) systems for more precise monitoring and control of the data center environment.

Keith Lane: We’re seeing modularity, increased efficiency, and flexibility. Most data center end users require all of these in their facilities.

Brian Rener: Calculated and measured performance, whether on energy efficiency, reliability, or life cycle costs. Owners are seeking verified value for their investment in the data center facility.

Saahil Tumber: Colocation providers used to be conservative in their approach and tended to follow standardized designs. However, they are now open to deploying new technologies and topologies to increase resiliency, improve power-usage effectiveness (PUE), reduce time to market, reduce cost, and gain a competitive advantage. They are coming out of their comfort zones. They are also laying emphasis on strategies that reduce stranded capacity and space. For enterprise clients, there is more collaboration between various stakeholders (information technology, operations, security, engineering, etc.). They are not working in silos anymore, but working toward a common goal. We are seeing consistency in their needs and requirements.

John Yoon: A trend is reduced infrastructure-redundancy requirements for clients that are migrating services to the cloud. A 2N UPS and N+1 computer room air conditioner (CRAC) redundancy used to be commonplace in our designs for corporate headquarters building-type data centers. That type of redundancy is now becoming the exception. The prevailing information technology (IT) mindset seems to be that if mission critical services are being moved offsite, why invest extra money in redundant infrastructure (and manpower) for what’s left behind? One significant experience that would speak to the contrary involved a client that decommissioned their main data center at headquarters and replaced it with a much smaller server room. The new server room was provided with no redundancy for the UPS equipment. That UPS was in service for more than 4 years without an incident. However, one day during a utility blip, the UPS dropped the critical load because a single battery cell faulted, causing a full battery-string failure. Although the power interruption was brief and the generator started, the inability of the UPS to immediately sync to an unstable bypass voltage took down everything downstream of the UPS—including the core network switches that allowed  headquarters to communicate with the rest of their facilities around the world. Although power was quickly restored via the UPS manual bypass, the reboot of the core switches did not occur smoothly. Communications back to headquarters were knocked out for nearly a day. Needless to say, executives were not pleased.

CSE: What other trends should engineers be on the lookout regarding such projects in the near future (1 to 3 years)?

Bill Kosik: There will still be a high demand for data centers. Technology will continue to evolve, morph, and change. The outlook for new or renovated data centers continues to be bullish with analysts looking at the industry doubling cloud strategies over the next 10 years. So, trends will center around lower-cost, higher shareholder-return data centers that need to address climate change and comply with data-sovereignty laws.

Kenneth Kutsmeda: A trend that will become more popular in data centers is the use of lithium batteries. One manufacturer of lithium batteries recently acquired UL listings (UL 1642: Standard for Lithium Batteries and UL 1973: Standard for Batteries for Use in Light Electric Rail (LER) Applications and Stationary Applications), and others will soon follow. Unlike cell phones that use lithium cobalt oxide, which has a high-energy density and is prone to safety risks when damaged, data center batteries use a combination of lithium manganese oxide and lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, which has a lower energy density but longer lifecycle and inherent safety features. Jacobs recently completed a project using lithium batteries. The lithium battery has a more than 15-year lifecycle and requires no maintenance. Lithium batteries provide a 65% space savings and 75% weight reduction as compared with wet-cell batteries. The lithium battery-management system provides the ability to isolate individual cabinets without taking down the UPS and eliminates the need for a separate monitoring system.

Rener: New metrics on reliability versus the old terms of availability. We are seeing a move away from prescriptive terms on availability to calculations on reliability using IEEE. Edge-cooling approaches (local to the server) have become more popular as well as fluid-based cooling at the rack.

Yoon: We expect to see further densification of server equipment. As recently as 10 years ago, a 45U high rack full of 1U “pizza-box” servers seemed like absurdly high density. Now, the highest-density blade server solution that I’m currently aware of has 280 blade servers in a 60U high rack—that’s a six-fold increase in density. With these dramatically higher equipment densities, traditional environmental design criteria just won’t cut it anymore. Much higher cold/hot-aisle temperatures are becoming the norm. In the next year or so, we also expect to see an increase in the use of lithium-ion (Li-ion) in place of valve-regulated lead-acid batteries for systems 750 kVA and larger. The value proposition appears to be there—they’re lighter, last longer, and more tolerant of higher temperatures. The one uncertainty is which Li-ion battery chemistry gains dominance. Some chemistries offer high energy densities but at the expense of increased volatility. The guiding NFPA safety codes and standards haven’t yet evolved to the point where any significant distinction can be made between these.

CSE: Please describe a recent data center project you’ve worked on—share details about the project, including location, systems engineered, team involved, etc.

Tumber: I’m currently working on a colocation data center campus in Chicago. The existing building can support 8 MW of IT load. The new 2-story building incorporates 160,000 sq ft of white space and will be capable of supporting 32 MW of IT load. The data halls are conditioned using outdoor packaged DX units, which use heat pipe for indirect airside economization. Each unit has a net-sensible cooling capacity of 400 kW, and each one discharges into a 48-in.-high raised-access floor. The electrical design is based on block-redundant topology and uses a 97%-efficient UPS system.

CSE: Describe a modular data center you’ve worked on recently, including any unique challenges and their solutions.

Yoon: We haven’t seen much in the way of large modular data centers (a la Microsoft ITPACs). Those seem to be mostly limited to large cloud providers. Our clients typically prefer traditional “stick-built” construction—simply because the scale associated with modular data center deployment doesn’t make much sense for them.

Lane: With all of our modular data center projects, we continue to strive to increase efficiency, lower cost, and increase flexibility. These challenges can be achieved with good planning between all members of the design team and innovation with prefabrication. The more construction that can be completed and is repeatable in the controlled environment of a prefabrication warehouse, the more money can be saved on the project.

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