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Rethinking How to Incorporate Technology into Office and Building Design

Technology infrastructure needs to be incorporated into facility plans before design work is done in order to avoid busting the budget.

Q2 2018
Not only do MDFs and IDFs take up valuable real estate, they often equire additional components.
Not only do MDFs and IDFs take up valuable real estate, they often equire additional components.
Think back to your workplace in the early ’90s. You likely used a bulky desktop PC and a landline phone that made it impossible to work anywhere other than your desk. Compare that setup to your workspace today. For many, 21st century technology has completely restructured where and how we work. Your old office building did not have the tech infrastructure required to support laptops and conference rooms with video-chatting capabilities. It needed renovations. Sounds expensive, right? And these costs will persist as we continue to bring new and innovative technology into our workspaces. However, there are ways to stay up-to-date without breaking your budget. We just need to think it through again.

Technology “Coming-of-Age”
When I got to Dallas in the late ’90s, there was something of a telecom/technology coming-of-age under way. Right up to that time, voice rode one network, and data rode another. End of story. But, late in the last century, that was set to change. In those days, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) — the technology that allows us to make voice calls over an Internet connection instead of a regular phone line — was just a gleam in some Cisco engineer’s eye, and we had no idea that Skype was around a not-too-distant corner. However, the basics, integrating voice and data traffic on a consolidated network, were in full swing.

As a result, design standards for connectivity in the ’90s were rudimentary and largely involved hiring $150/hour consultants after the architect’s design work was done. Then, the consultants had to explain to the design team why they needed to accommodate an MDF (Main Distribution Frame or data center, size T/B/D) and an IDF (Intermediate Distribution Frame, about the size of a college dorm room, per floor).

In those early days, MDFs and IDFs ruined a lot of nice designs. I should know. I was involved in too many of those conversations. Not only did MDFs and IDFs take up valuable real estate, most required additional components such as supplemental air, specialized power outlets, secured fire-doors, and more. In other words, these very necessary spaces were the worst of all possible worlds; they were latecomers to the game that busted budgets and made architects very angry. But what purpose did they even serve?

The MDFs are the centralized rooms, often with raised floors, where the active technology lives: servers, switches, computers, telecom gear, connections to telephone companies, and Internet service providers, etc. While modern cloud computing has moved many of these functions off site, it is still common for offices today to have an MDF of some sort.

And the IDFs? Their primary function is to serve as a centralized point on every other floor that a business occupies where the copper cables first terminate after connecting to faceplates in workstations.

At the most basic level, IDFs are needed to deal with two key limitations: one physics and one physical. For the physics, voice and data transmissions begin to fail when the cable run exceeds 90 meters, or 295 feet. If you exceed this distance, you need a second IDF on that floor, taking up even more space. Regarding the physical reasons, under the old design standards, it was not unusual to have three cables running to every Work Area Outlet (WAO). With the addition of offices and conference rooms, a floor with 150 employees could easily have nearly 600 copper cables. It’s impractical to try and feed that amount of cable between floors. Instead, the cables first stop in the IDF and then consolidate onto the fiber backbone in the riser system.

Case in Point
I offer this background because I was recently helping a client through a number of value engineering exercises, working my way down the list from finishes and lighting to breakroom amenities, and then, finally, we got to technology. With the above in mind, imagine my surprise when I learned this client not only had designed two MDFs in their nine-story space, they had also specified an extra IDF on each floor: two MDFs plus 14 IDFs.

While modern cloud computing has moved many of these functions off site, it is still common for offices today to have an MDF (Main Distribution Frame or data center) of some sort. During my discussions with the client’s IT team, I was told they were looking to deploy Skype for Business on all floors. Further, they would be transitioning to a 100 percent hoteling work environment with no assigned workstations, which has become common in today’s offices.

I started exploring ways to cut the budget by asking simple questions like whether two IDFs per floor were necessary. We soon agreed that having two per floor was redundant, and that conversation alone spared my client the cost of seven IDFs. Given that in total these rooms can easily cost $20K–$30K, we had just carved out $140K–$210K from the budget. Not a bad start, right? Still, we were not done.

Given the number of people expected on each floor, I did some quick math and realized the whole floor could be served by around 30 wireless terminals. Please remember that wireless networks do not mean there are no wires. But, instead of running copper cables in threes to each WAO, most wireless terminals just need a single copper cable. So, instead of the nearly 600 cables the old paradigm called for, we now needed just 30 cables, plus some for dedicated printers and network-based copiers.

That was when I realized yet another important factor that could save my client even more money: with just 30–40 cables running back to an IDF, so long as I did not exceed the 90-meter rule, I no longer needed to have an IDF per floor. After running the distances, I realized that I could stay within 90 meters while locating IDFs on every third floor.

We had now gone from two MDFs and 14 IDFs to one MDF and two IDFs. Plus, we no longer needed 16 UPS systems, 16 fire doors, 16 badge readers, and thousands upon thousands of twisted paired copper cables that the technology would have originally required.

To check my sanity, I called a consultant friend and ran the idea by him. He explained that, while such a concept does not meet current standards, it would work. He did suggest running two Category 6A cables to each wireless station to allow for bandwidth growth — one plugged in and used now and one for future use; but even with those additions, the number of cables would now be much more manageable.

Rethink the Old, Usher in the New
As my consultant friend said, perhaps the concept described above does not meet standards — not today’s at least. But these undeniable savings demonstrate that it is time to rethink the old and usher in the new. We no longer need $150/hour consultants to come in after the architect’s design work is done to explain to the design team why they need to accommodate MDFs and IDFs. IT teams are already embracing this tech infrastructure, and in some cases, like the one described above, they are doing so redundantly. As we continue to bring new and innovative technology into our workspaces, let’s not overlook important opportunities to build better mousetraps. It’s time we think it through again and utilize technology to spare our budget rather than break it.
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