Data centers are the nerve centers of modern business, housing companies’ most critical IT operations and applications, and allowing them to store, manage, and disseminate data as needed.

And while data centers enable other businesses to connect globally, the buildings themselves can, ironically, have poor connectivity for those inside — slowing productivity, increasing costs, and even impacting safety.

Connectivity Challenges Inside a Data Center

Like every other modern business, data centers require reliable, robust communications connectivity.

Employees need to communicate with each other across the aisles within the building or even across an entire campus of. An employee may need to download a manual from a manufacturer’s webpage or make a phone call to a manufacturer’s tech support to fix a piece of hardware. And in the event of a more serious issue, first responders need to be able to communicate with each other while inside in order to ensure occupant safety.

But these ordinary tasks can be difficult due to the characteristics of the data center — both inside and out — that inhibit connectivity.

Many data centers are located in remote, rural areas — places where cellular coverage is generally not as robust as it is in metropolitan areas — because the land is generally more affordable. And because data centers consume a lot of power, construction prioritizes conserving energy, going as far as placing parts of facilities underground or on the sides of mountains and further complicating access to any existing cellular coverage.

The buildings themselves are massive and dense, with thick, reinforced walls, and the insides are jungles of tall metal racks and glass-fronted cabinets that house and protect equipment. Large data centers may be composed of multiple large buildings on the same campus, not just one facility. Organizations like Amazon Web Services, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple invest $1 billion to $3 billion in a single campus for their data centers. 

In short, all of the attributes of an efficient, well-situated, and ideally constructed data center are the same ones that impact connectivity and block cellular and other RF signals, making it difficult or impossible for employees to use communications tools like mobile phones, tablets, computers, and two-way radios.

Connectivity issues impact more than employee productivity — they can also affect life and safety. First responders use public safety services specifically allocated to police, firefighters, EMS, and state/local government telecommunications. This means public safety wireless needs special consideration in data centers in case employees need to call for help and/or so first responders can communicate on the scene of an incident.

These challenges mean standard connectivity solutions (commercially available cellular and wireless networks) just won’t cut it when it comes to ensuring communication inside a data center. Instead, to ensure employee safety and productivity, savvy data center operators are looking to a solution called a distributed antenna system (DAS).

DAS for Data Centers

A DAS is recognized as the best tool available for solving complex in-building RF problems. In the data center, this complexity is the need to support multiple simultaneous services — commercial coverage, two-way radio, public safety, paging, even IoT traffic — in order to avoid the expense of separate systems for each requirement.

An active DAS typically comprises a primary hub connected to remote units distributed throughout a building, with cabling to connect the two elements. The primary hub is connected to an RF source for each service, which supplies the required signal. The hub sends the wireless signals to the remote units to ensure service is available in all parts of the building. The remote units are connected to antennas, which provide connection to the users.

The DAS ensures a strong signal throughout a building, eliminating dead spots. Because the RF source connected to the DAS is separate from towers nearby, the added capacity is dedicated to the building.

In addition to cellphones and mobile devices, an ideal DAS can also support two-way radios that are often used in data centers. The remotes and antennas distributed across the building cover the large indoor area effectively and can combine the cell signal with private networks as well as first responder coverage (where allowed by the local codes). In colocation facilities, these benefits extend to tenants working in the data center, enhancing the experience for both the facility and the tenant.

In data centers, reliable wireless can play a major role in improving operations, safety, and security. Traditionally, data center employees relied on a conventional wired telephone network, but savvy data center operations managers are adding DAS to support commercial wireless service to eliminate the expense associated with a wired network, thereby freeing workers to communicate more effectively.

Using mobile phones instead of desk phones increases the availability of personnel, reducing missed calls and response time. Employees don’t have to leave messages and wait for co-workers to get back to a desk or to an area with reliable cellular service to get a call back — all employees are fully accessible, no matter where they are. It also means data center operators can get rid of desk/aisle/control room landline phones, eliminating the associated capital and operational expenses.

Productivity increases, too — not just because employees have instant access to each other, but also because they also can access other resources quickly. The employee trying to fix a piece of hardware who needs to refer to a manual doesn’t have to stop to find an area with wireless service or a wired computer and download the manual.

Safety is also a driving factor in deploying wireless in the data center. When wireless coverage is ubiquitous, reporting a safety concern is quicker, reducing the likelihood of an actual incident occurring. However, if an accident does happen, such as a worker falling while working in the stacks, reporting and response are quicker when callers have a wireless-enabled space and don’t have to search for a landline. And public safety officials responding to the incident must have reliable communications, no matter what communications tool they’re using — be it a mobile phone, two-way radio, or live streaming tablet/body cameras.

The Benefits of the Right DAS

Selecting the right DAS brings a multitude of benefits to your data center.

A model DAS makes it easy to provide the desired signals to the right location, as well as the ability to easily expand coverage from a floor to an entire building or campus. A fiber-based architecture to the network edge delivers the signals to the most distant points of the building or campus from a single point. This modular architecture supports a pay-as-you-grow approach by making it easy to add a new service to the floor, building, or complete campus, as and when required.

Another desirable characteristic of the data center’s in-building connectivity solution is the flexibility to support multiple services. A wide-band DAS can support commercial cellular, two-way radio, paging, and public safety signals over the same infrastructure. Because fiber is ideal for carrying a lot of information, a fiber-based DAS can support simultaneous use of voice, video, and data. As public safety transitions from primarily voice-based service to a data-heavy service, it too must support streaming images and live videos.

A well-thought-out DAS should also be economical throughout its total cost of ownership (TCO). TCO is composed of three elements: initial installation cost, monitoring and maintenance, and upgrade cost. Initial cost is closely tied to the complexity of the solution, with the biggest cost elements being the equipment itself and the installation. Together, they can make up 80% of the cost of the project.

Data center designers should look for a DAS with fewer, more versatile elements. A DAS based on fiber to the edge simplifies installation, reduces labor, and drops the overall installation cost. Upgrades follow the same path — a wideband architecture ensures any new service will work over the existing infrastructure, dramatically reducing or even eliminating the need for additional infrastructure. 

Choosing a DAS that supports a wide band of services allows data center operators to install a system and know it’s going to work for not only their employees, but also the public safety responders who need reliable coverage. The right selection will solve today’s pain points and position the venue to solve tomorrow’s challenges for both coverage and service. A modular architecture makes it easy to add infrastructure to support system expansion and service additions; items like adding an operator or adding 5G are enabled by informed system design, wideband architecture, and fiber to the edge.

While ensuring robust wireless communication inside the reinforced walls of a data center is difficult, it’s a beneficial and necessary part of a secure data center operation. And by implementing a flexible, scalable DAS, data center operators are ready to face any challenge.