Shawn T. Reichart, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, RTKL & Associates (March 2011)
Locating a new data center project is a critical decision. Whether it is in your building, on your campus, or globally, there are critical factors in choosing a location for this mission critical asset. The first step in this process should always be a detailed understanding of your mission and goals, as well as your existing data center-type facilities. This will help you understand what you are looking for in a new location. By working with a design professional, you will be able to establish some basic parameters to start your search.
• Reliability goals (Tier I-Tier IV and hybrids in between)
• Physical size with built-in growth
• Utility requirements
• Network requirements
• Sustainable goals
• Desired relationship to the served facilities
• Security level
• Personnel and staffing issues
• Disaster recovery plan
In many ways, these basic issues do not change whether you are trying to locate a new data center in the building next door or in remote location around the globe.
In Your Building
When you're looking to locate a mission-critical project in your building, you need to start with power. Is there available utility service to the building? Depending on the Tier level you need, an additional, separate feed may be required. The building must be physically able to handle the data center. The floor should have a minimum, live load capacity of 150 pounds-per-square-foot, and you will need a clear height of 13 feet for a raised-access, floor-cooled data center. In-row cooling solutions may work with less height. The selected area should have at least one exterior wall. It usually makes sense to locate next to a "soft" function that could be relocated if the data center expands. Roof drain, sanitary drains, and pressurized water systems should be avoided in the data center. With severe weather, basements and low-lying areas are poor locations for a data center. Many efficient engineering systems require more space and exterior access. In office buildings and hospitals, you will often see data centers jammed into leftover basement space in the building core. This space will work for a short time, but it becomes difficult to expand. Security and staffing issues should also play a role in your decision. Avoid locations near lobbies, kitchens, industrial uses, and dusty environments. Data centers employ critical and highly skilled people who are often very busy. A location near IT staff must be considered for situation response times.
On Your Campus
In a suburban campus, clients should consider locating mission critical assets away from the campus center or entrance. Sites are harder to find in an urban environment. The center limits expansion as the campus grows and changes. Hospitals often suffer from this issue when they choose a central location to save cable length. These central locations are good for passive network rooms and telecom closets. In many cases, the perimeter is a better location for a data center, provided it meets security requirements.
In a campus, it is too easy to create buildings that fix many problems. Data centers get added last minute to the program of a larger building. On several occasions, RTKL has been asked to fix failing data centers located in the basement of a campus's main building, usually next to the kitchen or loading dock, with floors of wet lab space above. Instead, a stand-alone data center, perhaps collocated with IT functions, is a good option. It addresses security, allows the campus to grow freely, and remains unaffected by maintenance shutdowns.
Where In the World
When your site search goes regional, national, or global, the issues get more intense. These are just some considerations that arise:
• Network speed or latency back to your other facilities
• Local taxes and tax incentives
• Sustainability incentives
• Electrical grids
• Utility rates
• Natural risks (weather, fire, flood, earthquake)
• Manmade risks (highways, train lines, flight paths, nuclear power plants)
• Neighbor risks
• Access to qualified personnel
• Operating tragedy (multiple hot sites, hot site/cold site)
• Federal laws the effect banking information
• Civil and environmental issues
The number of potential sites is great and requires a systematic approach. Some regions make sense from the start. For RTKL client eBay, it made sense for the company to start its search for a new facility in the Colorado-Arizona-Utah area. The location is a short flight from San Jose and Phoenix, where eBay's current data centers are located, and those states have competitive power rates and network speeds. Some Tier IV and banking clients consciously decide to be on separate power grids so an incident like the 2003 Northeast blackout does not take out all of their mission critical assets.
Once these basic search areas are defined, you can investigate the available property zoned for this use. With large facilities, an extensive site search is typically warranted because most local governments welcome the revenues and highly skilled jobs that come with large data centers. Furthermore, businesses should seek state tax and sustainability incentives.
Once power rates, property costs, and taxes have been evaluated, the list becomes manageable and visits are planned. Seeing the site in person allows you to understand the local risks of the area. Highways, train lines, and major flight paths present the potential for accidents that could threaten the facility. The same goes for flood plains, rivers, and seismically active areas.
Whether you are locating a data center downstairs or across the world, a test fit should be generated. At this point, your design professional should have a conceptual diagram for the data center. This diagram is not an actual building, but is complete, to scale, and can be used to test various locations for the new data center. Make sure the diagram includes space for proper loading access, future growth, outdoor equipment space, and security standoff if required.
The Perfect Site
Despite its global work, RTKL has yet to find the perfect location for a data center. There are risks and tradeoffs for every location. But with creative thought and design, the risks and shortcomings of the selected site can be mitigated. If your site ends up being located in a hurricane zone, then the exterior can be designed to meet those wind speeds. The real trick is not to be surprised by potential risks to the data center. For instance, industrial parks are often sold as good locations for data centers, but RTKL electrical engineers have had problems with their power quality. Often, large electric motors and welding can create power fluctuations upstream in the power grid, causing UPS problems.
These are just some considerations for conventional brick-and-mortar data centers. Many big players in Web-based services are doing things differently now. They have chosen to build smaller data centers and spread them out across the globe. In many cases, the data centers are in shipping container-sized boxes that are built remotely, transported to the site, and lightly staffed, if at all. This operational concept allows multiple data centers to be offline while the system diverts traffic around its holes. Modular, containerized data centers are changing site search parameters and priorities, and creating trickle-down benefits for smaller users.