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Data Center Sites: What’s Your Connection?

Those seeking a location for a data center need to consider fiber connectivity, access to power, cooling capabilities, risk mitigation, and security, among key requirements.

Q2 2023
The demand for data among the U.S. population is growing at a rapid pace. The proliferation of smartphones, cloud-based services, IOT, and increased use of video and streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube has U.S. users consuming vast amounts of data to watch videos on their devices. According to a report by Cisco, the U.S. annual IP traffic alone was expected to reach 3.3 zettabytes (ZB) by 2022, up from 1.2 ZB in 2017.

Data centers bring high-paying jobs with specialized labor such as data analysts and scientists, engineers, maintenance technicians, and facilities managers. They are typically large investments that often attract ancillary tech companies to an area. Additionally, data centers help strengthen critical infrastructure, are coveted utility customers, and they generate robust property tax revenue through high assessed personal property values and short equipment life cycles.

Therefore, as states and communities look to cash in on data center developments’ massive growth and economic benefits, it is important for those seeking a location for a new data center to understand their unique site requirements. For this article, we examine some key site selection characteristics of a successful data center location. Though not comprehensive, here are several factors that should be considered when choosing a potential site for a data center facility:

Fiber connectivity: Fast and reliable fiber, as well as access to other networks and data centers.

Data centers require ultra-fast and reliable connectivity, so a site's access to powerful, high-capacity fiberoptic networks is a critical factor for success. Access to power: Data centers require a lot of power, so a site with a stable and redundant power supply is crucial.

Climate and cooling capabilities: Data centers generate a lot of heat, so a site with good climate conditions and access to cooling resources is important.

Geographic risk mitigation: A site with a low natural disaster profile, minimal electromagnetic interference, and other favorable environmental conditions are preferred by data center site analysts.

Security: Data centers store sensitive and valuable information, so a site with low area density, generous site buffers, healthy setbacks, and access control are critical.

Fiber Connectivity
Data centers require ultra-fast and reliable connectivity, so a site’s access to powerful, high-capacity fiberoptic networks is a critical factor for success. The proximity to major fiber routes, as well as the availability of diverse paths, will impact the quality and resiliency of a data center’s network to its customers or consumers. Sites with direct, unimpeded access to major fiber trunks will be an enormous benefit.

Access to dark fiber can be a significant advantage for a data center site. Dark fiber refers to unused or “dark” fiberoptic cables that are available for lease or purchase. By leasing or purchasing dark fiber, data centers can have direct access to high-speed, low-latency connectivity to other data centers, Internet service providers (ISPs), cloud providers, and other networks. Leasing or purchasing dark fiber can also give data centers greater control over their network infrastructure, allowing them to optimize network routing and reduce reliance on third-party providers.

At a rapidly increasing rate, data centers are seeking locations with access to renewable energy sources — such as wind, solar, or hydro power. Connectivity can also pertain to users as well as infrastructure. The geographic location of a data center can impact its accessibility and latency to end-users. For example, a data center located in a densely populated urban area may provide faster connectivity to end-users, while for certain data centers, a remote rural location may offer more physical security but unwanted increased latency.

Access to Power
Data centers require large amounts of electrical power to run the computing equipment and cooling systems, so access to reliable and redundant power sources is important. A data center may require tens, or hundreds, of megawatts — or even more. The availability and capacity of utility power should be evaluated when considering a site for a data center site.

Pre-planned and an engineered redundant power supply from independent electric grid sources ensures continuous operations in the event of a power outage or other disruptions. This typically means having multiple power feeds from the utility accessible and in close proximity to the site. An adjacent electrical substation, with high-voltage transformers, switchgear, and distribution panels will ultimately be necessary to serve the end-user. Being prepared with how and where this will be achieved is helpful and necessary.

Buried electrical cables should be considered as they are less susceptible to damage from weather events, such as high winds or ice storms, which can cause power outages. Additionally, buried cables are less likely to be damaged by accidental contact with heavy equipment, and are also less susceptible to electromagnetic interference (EMI) that can degrade signal quality or cause data transmission errors. The entire infrastructure system will ultimately be backed up by on-site generators and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems.

At a rapidly increasing rate, data centers are seeking locations with access to renewable energy sources — such as wind, solar, or hydro power — or utilities with a defined plan to provide such sources, which can help to reduce energy costs and minimize their carbon footprint. Sites should have a blueprint to meet a data center’s carbon-neutral requirements.

Recent shifts toward more water-efficient cooling technologies have improved water use efficiencies. As a result of these factors, it is imperative that the appropriate utility partner be part of the team identifying a potential data center site for development from inception. Professional utility maps and definitive time, cost, and capacity service plans should be documented in advance of the first site visit.

It’s worth noting that the power requirements of a data center are not just determined by the computing equipment, but also by the cooling infrastructure needed to keep that equipment within the proper temperature range. In general, cooling can account for up to 40 percent of a data center’s power usage.

Climate and Cooling Capabilities
A data center requires a significant amount of cooling infrastructure to maintain the optimal temperature and humidity levels for computing equipment. The climate and weather patterns of a site location can affect the energy efficiency and cost of operating a data center. Sites with cooler temperatures and lower humidity levels can reduce the need for cooling. Generally, data centers prefer cooler climates with temperatures ranging from 64–75 degrees Fahrenheit (18–24 degrees Celsius) as higher temperatures can lead to overheating and equipment failure. Humidity levels between 40 percent and 60 percent are preferred to prevent the buildup of static electricity and to minimize the risk of equipment corrosion.

Water is most often used for cooling purposes to remove heat generated by the IT equipment. This is carried out using air-conditioning units, chillers, and evaporative cooling systems. The amount of water used for cooling depends on the type of cooling system used, as well as the local climate and humidity levels. Recent shifts toward more water-efficient cooling technologies, such as air-side economizers, which use outside air for cooling instead of water, have improved water use efficiencies. However, areas with abundant water resources, such as large bodies of water or areas with ample rainfall, can be effective locations for data center sites, providing affordable water while minimizing the impact on local water resources.

Geographic Risk Mitigation
Data centers should avoid areas prone to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, or floods, which can cause power outages, equipment damage, and other disruptions.

As great an economic gem as a data center might be for a state and community to secure, it may come with a “no public announcement” tag attached to it.

Data centers typically avoid locating near sources of vibration, such as train tracks, highways, or airports, as they can negatively impact the performance and reliability of the sensitive equipment within the data center. Vibrations can cause equipment to shift, which can lead to data corruption, hardware failures, and downtime. To mitigate the risk of vibration, states and communities must evaluate the surrounding environment of a prospective site for potential sources of vibration before a site decision is made.

In addition to vibration, data centers also avoid locating near sources of electromagnetic interference (EMI), such as high-voltage power lines or radio towers, as they can cause electrical disturbances that can interfere with the performance of sensitive equipment. Risk factors come in many forms and may include fire suppression, regulatory, and zoning restrictions too. Careful examination should be given to a community or area’s own ratings and policies regarding fire suppression rating (ISO/FSRS) specific to a site, facility height restrictions, industrial zoning requirements for large infrastructure development, and other factors that add time or uncertainty to a company’s site and facility development schedule.

Data centers store sensitive and valuable information, so a site that has natural privacy and buffer attributes can be more attractive. Unlike many industrial and distribution operations which crave interstate visibility, data centers generally eschew obvious recognition of identity and even operational purpose. Individual user sites with spare acreage upfront and developable acreage in the rear are generally more favorable choices. Sites with a controllable single-entrance access from a secondary road off a four-lane highway may be ideal.

Data center security preferences will vary depending on the specific needs and requirements of the data center and its clients. Physical security measures are implemented to prevent unauthorized access to a data center. This includes measures such as perimeter fencing, a manned security entrance, and other access controls, surveillance cameras, and biometric identification systems and more. As great an economic gem as a data center might be for a state and community, it should be recognized that it may come with a “no public announcement” tag attached to it for security purposes.

Overall, siting a data center requires careful consideration of a wide range of factors, including access to fiber optic networks, reliable and redundant power, climate and cooling capabilities, geographic risk mitigation, and secure environments. A comprehensive evaluation of these factors and more can help ensure the optimal location for a data center to meet its specific needs and requirements.

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