Shawn T. Reichart, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, RTKL & Associates (March 2011)
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.