In the aerospace, military and test and measurement industries, it has been common for customers to procure custom racks and cabinets for many years. The systems integrated into these racks are typically very complex, and standard rack configurations do not meet the requirements that are needed to function at the level they are designed for. Until recently, the data center market has been the exact opposite. The term “custom” would make end users cringe. All they could think about was long lead times and increased costs. Over the past decade, however, the data center market has changed, and it has become common to at least have discussions about some level of customization to racks and cabinets. Infrastructure teams are realizing that they need a rack that can meet their build requirements and be able to accommodate future equipment changes housed inside the cabinet.

There are many different levels of customization for racks and cabinets. The customization can be very simple, like a special cutout in a panel that only requires a modified laser program. Or, it can be a complete custom size that requires a high level of engineering, equipment programs  for almost every component needed to make the cabinet, and dedicated production runs for these components because standard components cannot be used. Typically with standard racks, components are manufactured in large runs, so they're  in stock more often than not. They're configured for each order, as customers can pick from different standard options for doors, side panels, and top panels. In some cases, especially with racks manufactured overseas, finished racks are in stock and ready to ship, but the cabinet must be purchased exactly as it is stocked with no options for different accessories.

One of the most common features to customize on a rack is the cable management system,, and, overall, this is pretty easy to customize. Finger cable management is a standard accessory offered in many rack lines. But, in some cases, the standard fingers do not work with what is going on inside the rack. If there is a lot of Category 6 cable in the rack, having fingers at every rack unit (RU) may not provide enough room to manage the large cable bundles. Cable management with 4- or 6-inch fingers may not be long enough for specific applications. Many end users go with fingers at every other RU in a rack to accommodate the larger bundles, and requests can be made for fingers as short as 3 inches long all the way up to 12 inches long. Cable and power panels are standard features in almost every rack, but how the PDUs and cable bundles will be laid out leads to a lot of customization. The most standard layout is to have a PDU on each side of the cabinet and then use the balance of the power panel for cable management, but some end users want both PDU’s on one side of the rack along with some room on that panel for cable management. They may want one panel where a portion of the panel is punched for mounting PDUs and the rest of the panel is punched as a cable lacing strip. If they are forced to use a 42-inch-deep rack and are really tight on space, a 5- or 7-inch panel may not work, so they may go with 3-inch power panels in the rear. It's interesting to see the different configurations data center teams come up with once they know they are not locked into standard fingers and panels.

For manufacturers, one of the easiest custom features to implement is special cutouts in top panels. It typically only requires a modification to an existing laser program. There are a variety of reasons customers may want these, but the most common is to bring power in, cables in, or both. Most data centers will want a large cutout with brush in the rear of the cabinet, but others may want a large cutout in the front with a cover plate in the rear, which may allow them to change how they use the cabinet in the future. Other IT teams have wanted long cutouts on each side of the top panel front to back. Adding or removing cutouts in a panel requires minimal manufacturing time and little cost even at a low quantity.

Custom colors are another way to customize server and network racks. Ten years ago, almost every data center was filled with black cabinets. Today, the majority of the cabinets shipped to data centers are white, with black being the second most popular color. Even though it is not as common as custom cable management and custom top panels, there are data centers that want colored racks — one might find data centers with gray, blue, red, purple and even clear coated racks. Some organizations even have their racks painted with their exact Pantone color. This is as simple as getting the company’s Pantone color and having powder or liquid paint manufactured to that color. The cost of the paint is typically higher than a standard white or black, but it really turns the data center into a show piece. It is also becoming more popular to brand cabinets by silk screening a company logo on the front of each rack or on the side panels at the end of every row. Some organizations choose to do this with a standard color ink, but most choose to go with the exact colors that are in their corporate logo. Multiple colors are typically screened on, and this gives the cabinets a very unique and professional look. Silk screening is preferred over a sticker or decal as it looks nicer and is more permanent. There is an initial cost and some additional lead time for the screens to be made, but it is an affordable option.

The most complex rack customization for IT cabinets is making them a custom size. This could be the height, width, or depth. Common heights for data center racks are 52, 48, 44, and 42 RU, but there are now data centers with racks that are 62, 58, 57 and 54 RU.  A custom width may be needed based on the internal room needed inside the rack and the overall length of the row. Custom depths may be ordered based on the depth of equipment or due to limited space in a room. There are data centers that have customized the height, width, and depth of their racks. When modifying any dimension relating to the overall size of the rack, every component manufactured for that dimension becomes custom — going from a standard 52 RU height to 54 RU changes the height of the door, side panels, main channels, power panels, and mounting channels. Doors will typically have many components that make up the assembly, and any component related to the height is now custom, but all of the components will be usable as long as the width is standard.

There are other types of customizations but those mentioned above are the most common for data center cabinets while the cost and lead time for each varies. The one thing that does not vary is that the cost for customization is based on volume. This is because customization drives equipment setups, and the cost for those setups is amortized across the quantity that is being ordered. There are data centers that have procured cabinets that have all of the modifications listed above and, because of the quantity they were ordering, the cost was the same as ordering a standard rack. One may find that ordering one or two custom racks can be cost prohibitive but if 20 or more racks are ordered at a time, the cost should be within 5% to 10% of a standard rack, and the lead time should not be more than four weeks.

Finding a standard rack that fits build requirements is possible, but, if it’s not the right fit for the data center, then finding a rack manufacturer that specializes in customizing their standard cabinets will be the best choice for optimum customization.