Data Center Site Selection: Better, Faster, Smarter
What you need to know when choosing your data center site.
New technologies continue to enter and disrupt our lives every day. Decision makers who wish to forge a new path forward into the future for their companies must embrace these innovations — if not, they will find it hard to survive. It’s become as simple as adapt and survive, or resist and get left behind.
Data centers are not immune to this evolution, and while new technologies are creating vast opportunities, they also pose some challenges. Enter cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and maybe most important these days, cybersecurity. This age of digital disruption is creating a new landscape in the discussion of building data centers of the future because that is what we are all striving to accomplish. Today, it is about delivering sustainable, scalable facilities that are better, faster, and smarter than ever before.
Experts in the field must always think two steps ahead when it comes to advising clients. Likewise, companies need to partner with the most trusted and tested data center experts to get the job done. Which brings us to maybe one of the most overlooked steps — assembling a team comprised of construction, design and development partner or partners that truly understand the ins and outs of searching for the right site to build a data center.
It is easy to think that all sites are created equally, but there is more than meets the eye. Issues like local permitting, utilities, and more should be considered from a constructability standpoint well before a design is settled upon. As such, it is important to choose professionals that can inform and educate every step of the way. It will help drive meaningful results to meet your business needs for today, tomorrow, and the future.
So what do you need to know when you are out with your teams searching for your next data center location?
For starters, you will need to consider three key challenges: speed-to-market, budget certainty, and project funding.
Speed is a crucial element. With more and more customers needing “the cloud” for everything from day-to-day business to financial needs to simply needing to hear that song right now, time spent building the facility is time a data center is not supporting the bottom line. The weight is on our shoulders as stewards leading the construction, design, and development of these facilities that are the foundation for our digital society to find better ways to deliver the end product in shorter time frames.
But understanding the market where construction will take place is key. For example, the permitting processes of two popular locations for data centers — Ashburn, VA, and Silicon Valley municipalities — are very different. One is not necessarily preferable to the other, but some Silicon Valley municipalities will require more planning and time before a shovel hits the ground due to local processes. That said, the data center owner who approaches these jurisdictions the same way will likely see delays. Choosing the right experts can guide you through possible hidden pitfalls.
It is vitally important to understand the goals and needs of a client. Having a dialogue in the early stages will set teams up for positive outcomes. This discovery period is a valuable step for both sides — it gives clarity to the client and creates an understanding for both sides on what the expected goals and outcomes are for the creation of the data center. For example, some data center owners prefer to renovate and up-fit buildings rather than take on the risks of building new from the ground up. In those cases, another set of challenges must be addressed. A former warehouse facility certainly has the space for data halls, but likely lacks some of the needed infrastructure to support all that goes into a data center. Early exploration of what a building’s existing systems are will help guide all sorts of decisions from the viability to the site to the design if the site is chosen.
The solution to all of this is putting together the team from the very beginning of the process. Owners, designers, and contractors should work together to determine what locations make sense based on desired business outcomes. Does a greenfield make sense when an existing building might work? The experiences of designers and contractors can bring a valuable view to the table that will enable projects to move much more quickly once ground has been broken.
The team reviewing potential sites can quickly develop conceptual execution plans so owners can compare potential locations and evaluate the challenges of each. At the same time, they can check potential sites against their high-level master plans to ensure everything aligns.
At this stage, factors can emerge that, in a traditional way of thinking and planning, might lead to knee-jerk decisions to reduce costs. The right team, though, can counsel through these issues to show that no one needs to sacrifice quality to meet schedule and budget. You can have all three by putting the “reality check” on site viability and budget upfront.
Getting there means freeing yourself from the traditional way of doing things: identify the site, hire a broker, initial cost validation, involve a designer, cost validate again, involve a contractor … and then see how things pencil out.
A better approach works the way a recent Skanska project went. The client and a realty company identified and secured a site location within a quarter-mile of the electrical service provider’s substation.
As a result of overlapping the initial building upfit with the construction of the core and shell and development efforts, the project was delivered to a more aggressive schedule.
Underground infrastructure was installed for the entire building during the first phase, but only a quarter of the interior space was built-out. The data center space can easily expand as the owner’s client base grows.
In other words, a lot of things that used to happen in silos happened more collaboratively, with all hands aligned to delivering positive client outcomes. Planning for speed-to-market concurrently with coordination of schedule and budget needs by all project partners enabled that result for our client.
Advantages of this approach lead to the kind of budget certainty that gets funded. It does not matter what kind of construction is happening: no one likes to see requests for unforeseen costs. With a data center, businesses that are new to the cloud can have friction between the visionary CIO and the balance-sheet-focused CFO.
Fortunately, CFOs and others who may be funding a project have likely encountered construction and design risks in the past. Helping them understand the specialized challenges of a data center especially by region sooner helps make sure funding is secured. This includes a robust master plan for the project — not just the first phase — to help make decisions about how much risk should be handled internally vs. externally.
Early collaboration means a more full understanding of options.
SOLUTIONS AND TIPS TO REMEMBER
The key to success on all of these fronts is collaboration and being comfortable breaking out of traditional workflows to overlap on certain functions. By doing so, it helps site selection become a leaner, more efficient process that yields the best results for all stakeholders.
Forming a team to create a shared vision turns perceived limitations into opportunities and eliminates the ambiguities that can cause some stakeholders heartburn.
As the cloud becomes central to nearly every business in the nation, the data center need is only going to increase. Changing the approach to the traditional build now will yield better results and point the way forward.