2010 is the most exciting year for data technology facilities since the introduction of air-cooled computers. At last, the speed with which data center infrastructure is evolving has begun to mirror the advancements in IT technology housed within these structures.
The evolutionary disparity between facilities and technology is reflected in a manager’s recollection of a data center outage he experienced many years ago. A simple switching error momentarily disrupted power to the computers. The recovery took three days and required an army of IT technicians performing reboots and system checks. The number of people supporting the outage was so vast that catering and hotel services became a significant cost factor in the recovery.
A year later, a second critical system outage took place at the facility, but this time almost no one from the IT support team arrived onsite for the recovery process. He reported this to the executive level only to learn that IT had completed all of their reboots, system checks, and data recovery remotely; IT was just waiting on facilities to complete their repairs.
In just one year, the technology community identified a risk to reliability and recovery and implemented a fix that was dramatically more efficient, while the facilities went unchanged and would remain so for the next 15 years.
Facilities have been slow to evolve; capital and physical barriers associated with the construction process limit how fast changes can ripple through building stock. Now, however, the era of Tier IV facilities is passing, as technology is negating dependence on the actual server. The ability to direct traffic to an alternative processing center minimizes the loss of a single device, cluster, or even a facility.
With the new generation of data centers, CFOs and CIOs are aligning on the needs of the business and creating an environment that isn’t polarized on cost versus reliability.
Historically the gold-plated data fortress has been the primary solution for IT reliability, but today there are structures and infrastructure designs that more closely mimic warehouses or manufacturing facilities. It is appropriate that we move from data castles to industrial facilities. Data processing is the fourth utility, and the way in which we provide these facilities needs to reflect how other utilities have developed.
Following the wave of multi-billion dollar power plants the power industry turned towards modularized prefabricated merchant plants that are erected and connected to the grid in less than a year.
Today in the cloud environment and with the growth of network computing, new topologies have eliminated the need for large hardened infrastructure by applying network topologies to reroute data traffic to another data processing plant. It is this kind of dynamic flexibility that has allowed the mega data centers to minimize one-of-a-kind designs and custom building and take advantage of modularized construction much like the utility merchant plants.
Plug and Play Facilities
So what is being modularized? Generators are the data industry’s pioneer species. The industry has been accepting containerized or modular blocks of standby power for decades but only now are prefabricated cooling plants and mechanical skids being adopted.
The industry is aware of the excitement around containerized data centers, but the concept of modularizing nearly all facility infrastructure is being applied at an unprecedented level as switch gear modules and prefabricated UPS rooms are being deployed into warehouse environments. The ability to closely monitor workmanship and quality inside of a manufacturing facility versus a construction site improves not only the overall product but reduces safety related incidents and accelerates speed of delivery.
Outside of the Box
Modularized infrastructure isn’t restricted to what fits into a shipping container as a tour of a North Carolina off-site construction plant revealed the flexibility to modularize large data center environments and the associated infrastructure.
The manufacturing site, equipped with rolling gantry cranes, was in the process of finalizing assembly of a large 10,000 square foot electrical and mechanical plant that would be retrofitted into an existing facility. The fabrication and delivery were designed to allow the existing plant to continue running while the new system was installed into a mezzanine level.
This is equivalent to a facility heart transplant that allows the existing facility to operate on the old inefficient infrastructure while a new one is constructed and installed inside the existing shell. The cutover to the new plant is an extended weekend,
These modularized plants are robust designs using state-of-the-art BIM modeling and are complete with pumps, chillers, air handling units, filtration, electrical switch gear, and UPS, all code compliant and manufactured into shipping splits that can be disassembled and transported internationally then reassembled.
The speed to delivery and the high construction quality are the earmarks of off-site construction. The plants are surprisingly operator friendly, with access to all of the piping and wiring. Hatches are fitted to allow chiller tube cleaning or removal. BIM modeling ensures that every motor and pump can be accessed and repaired or replaced.
The plant feels roomy for operations, but the efficiency of space is what is most impressive. Everything can be accessed from a stepladder. The interconnections are designed for permanent installation once the shipping splits are connected on site. Alignment and operation is guaranteed as the entire plant has been commissioned and tested prior to leaving the manufacturing site and the same project management team that oversaw the manufacturing, travels with the plant for installation and startup.
The manufacturer says that the concept isn’t new. “We’ve been making these for 10 years for pharmaceuticals and 10 years before that for the textile industry. When you take into consideration all the needs for dust collectors, clean rooms, and vivarium requirements of the pharma industry, data center MEP plants are relatively easy to build.”
There are virtually no restrictions on the design or the size of what can be manufactured. Structural and site work which are often the most challenging part of the construction process may be minimized. The designs can work around roof and floor loading by creating self-supporting structural frames. The plants can be literally “hung from the rafters if necessary.”
The offsite construction industry has assembled full raised floor environments and drop shipped them to warehouse-style data centers developed since 2000. In less than the time it takes many design firms to program a data center design, a full data center can be built and shipped to any location. Complete with racks, cabling, above or below floor cooling topologies, networking, controls, security and fire safety all integrated into the delivered package, requiring simply the connections for power, cooling, and communications.
Consider how often data center designs have included excess capacity waiting for the technology to fill the space and the frustration of CFOs tying up capital for a “future requirements” that may never emerge. The other side of the equation is scrambling to find space when the existing data center becomes over utilized or a technology refresh renders the space non functional. The concept of modularized infrastructure is a sign that facilities are finally keeping pace with our brethren in IT.
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