Designing efficient data centers

In today’s digital age, businesses rely on running an efficient, reliable, and secure operation, especially with mission critical facilities such as data centers. Here, engineers with experience on such structures share advice and tips on ensuring project success.



MEP Rountable RespondentsDoug Bristol, PE, Electrical Engineer, Spencer Bristol, Peachtree Corners, Ga.,
Terry Cleis, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Peter Basso Associates Inc., Troy, Mich.
Scott Gatewood, PE, Project Manager/Electrical Engineer/Senior Associate, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
Darren Keyser, Principal, kW Mission Critical Engineering, Troy, N.Y.
Bill Kosik, PE, CEM, LEED AP, BEMP, Senior Engineer – Mission Critical, exp, Chicago
Keith Lane, PE, RCDD, NTS, LC, LEED AP BD&C, President, Lane Coburn & Associates LLC, Seattle
John Peterson, PE, PMP, CEM, LEED AP BD+C, Program Manager, AECOM, Washington, D.C.
Brandon Sedgwick, PE, Vice President, Commissioning Engineer, Hood Patterson & Dewar Inc., Atlanta
Daniel S. Voss, Mission Critical Technical Specialist, M.A. Mortenson Co., Chicago

CSE: What’s the biggest trend you see today in data centers?

Doug Bristol: I’m seeing increasing emphasis on modularity and build-as-you-go to minimize the initial expense.

Terry Cleis: Designing overall systems that are focused at the rack level. These designs include targeted rack-level cooling and row containment for hot or cold areas. Some of these systems can be designed to provide flexible levels of cooling to match changing needs for individual racks. These designs include rack-mounted monitoring for temperature and power and associated power and cooling systems designed to cover a predetermined range of equipment. These systems also often allow for raised floor elevations to be minimized or even removed. This enables any space that is below the floor to be used for other systems with less concern on air movement.

Scott Gatewood: Beyond reliability and durability, efficiency and scalability remain top priorities for our clients’ infrastructures. Although this is not a new revelation, the means and methods of achieving them through design and information technology (IT) hardware continue to evolve. Data center energy (with an estimated 90 billion kWh of data center energy waste this year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council) remains a key operational cost-management goal. The tools, methods, and hardware needed to reduce energy continue advancing. The Internet of Things (IoT) has entered the data center with data center infrastructure-management (DCIM) software, sensors, analytics, and architectures that closely couple cooling and energy recovery, providing energy efficiencies rarely achievable just 6 years ago. With increased automation, managing the plant is increasingly achievable from remote locations, just as the IT infrastructure has been. Scalability also remains critical to our clients. How this is achieved also continues to evolve. For businesses seeking innovative advantages through speed to market, modular approaches using pre-engineered scaled solutions with fast deployment continue to grow. Although not for everyone or every site, more options exist to scale rapidly than ever before.

Bill Kosik: Over the past 10 years, data center design has evolved tremendously. During that maturation process, we have seen trends related to reliability, energy efficiency, security, consolidation, etc. I don’t believe there is a singular trend that is broadly applicable to data centers like the trends we’ve seen in the past. They are more subtle and more specific to the desired business outcome; data center-planning strategies must include the impacts of economical cloud solutions, stricter capital spending rules, and the ever-changing business needs of the organization. Data centers are no longer the mammoth one-size-fits-all operation consolidated from multiple locations. We see that one organization will use different models across divisions, especially when the divisions have very diverse business goals.

Keith Lane: Some of the new trends we see in the industry include striving for increased efficiency and reliability without increasing the cost. Efficiency can be gained with better uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, proper loading on the UPS, transformers, and increased cold-aisle temperatures. Additionally, a proper evaluation of the specific critical loads and the actual required redundancies can allow some of the loads to be fed at 2N, some at N+1, others at N, and others with straight utility power.  Allowing this type of evaluation to match specific levels of redundancy/reliability with actual load types can significantly increase efficiency.

John Peterson: We are seeing a continuation of the many trends that have been happening in the industry over the past few years. For the more cutting-edge, power density and temperature ranges move higher while infrastructure moves toward becoming more automated and software-defined. Modularity for scalability is more popular. Enterprises are mimicking the more agile IT environments that large cloud providers have established as the new paradigm. Edge computing continues to grow, and with that, support will be needed. Clients will be balancing bandwidth and storage to deploy in quantities that are closer to what they need.

Brandon Sedgwick: The biggest trends we see in data centers today are megasites and demand-dependent construction. In this highly competitive market, minimizing cost per megawatt of installed capacity is a priority for data center owners, which is why megasites spanning millions of square feet with hundreds of megawatts of capacity are becoming more common. Borrowing a page from just-in-time manufacturing principles, these megasites (and even smaller facilities) are designed to be built or expanded in phases in response to precontracted demand to minimize upfront capital expenditure and expedite time to market. Consequently, these phased projects often demand compressed construction schedules with unyielding deadlines driven by financial penalties for the owner. This has led to simpler or modular designs to expedite construction, maximize capacity, and reduce costs while allowing flexible redundancy and maintainable configurations to meet individual client demands.

Daniel S. Voss: We’re noticing large colocation providers with faster speed-to-market construction and implementation. There is a high level of competition between the major countrywide colocation providers to have the ideal space with all amenities (watts per square foot, raised access floor, security, appropriate cooling, etc.) ready for each new client and customer.

CSE: What trends and technologies do you think are on the horizon for such projects?

Kosik: Information and communications technology (ICT), particularly high-end enterprise servers, continues to evolve by increasing the computing power while simultaneously reducing energy use. The robust workloads that run on these machines are designed to take advantage of the increased productivity, so even though the computing efficiency has increased, the overall power consumption also increases. This leads to a greater electrical-demand density (watts per square foot) across the data center and a greater electrical density at the server-cabinet level (watts per cabinet).

Gatewood: In addition to the plant infrastructure, we tend to watch emerging IT infrastructure trends for their potential effects on the future of the physical environment. Here, the landscape continues its rapid change. Beyond the megatrends of the cloud/hybrid, edge computing, and security, we see changes in storage—and networking technologies will alter the personalities of the white space with more storage equipment. Due to the vastly larger amounts of data production from IoT and video appliances, combined with costs and performance increases, data center and edge storage will explode and change the IT footprint of the white space.

Voss: There are really two trends. The first is using existing, heavy industrial buildings and repurposing them for data centers. To increase the speed to market, many owners and constructors are eyeing containers and containerization for electrical, mechanical, and IT disciplines. The second involves building hyperscale data centers with 20 mW or more of critical IT computing power. Many large colocation providers are constructing multibuilding campuses with total campus capacity exceeding 50 mW of critical IT compute power.

Cleis: We’re seeing targeted cooling with more options including water and refrigerant for racks. Better options for the piping distribution associated with these systems will continue to evolve to make the work associated with ongoing maintenance and future changes better suited to take place in a data center environment. We have owners asking for more modular designs and designs that will prevent issues like software/firmware problems that can ultimately shut down entire systems. These include smaller UPS systems or using multiple UPS manufacturers. Smaller systems can be located closer to the loads and allow equipment upgrades or replacements associated with failures without affecting the entire facility. Replacement and repairs to smaller components can also help reduce costs associated with ongoing maintenance and repairs.

Sedgwick: One trend we are seeing more frequently is that IT is leveraging methods, such as virtualization, that can be used to “shift” server processes from one location to another in the event of a failure, to offset physical power-delivery system redundancy. This allows engineers to streamline infrastructure design by reducing power transformations between incoming sources and the load, simplifying switching automation, and minimizing—or even eliminating—UPS and backup generation. Simpler power-delivery systems consume less square footage, are faster to build, and free up more of a facility’s footprint for white space.

Peterson: Liquid and immersion cooling is likely to grow in the coming years. As power densities increase and the costs and implementation challenges are solved, liquid and immersion cooling practices can start to develop, as efficiency is still a prime factor for operations. Surveys have shown that enterprise businesses will be continuing or expanding their investment in hybrid or cloud solutions. This indicates that the software-defined data center market is still growing and that it won’t matter where the data centers are or who owns and operates them. As DCIM becomes implemented in more comprehensive ways, we’ll see improvements that are a step or two away from being automated.

Bristol: Lithium-ion batteries appear to be ready for prime time.

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