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How can we design a scalable data center?

Is there a rule of thumb to size the square footage for a new data center that is cost effective for at least another 10 years? If not, what are the major factors that we need to put into consideration with the new and future server technology in mind?

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A book could probably be written on this, and it is one of the most difficult things we do in designing a new data center. If there is any "rule of thumb," I don't know it and probably wouldn't trust it. My reason is that it is so heavily dependent on the individual business, and since I don't even know what economic sector you are in, I can't be even semi-specific. One of the first things we do on a project is spend a considerable amount of time getting to know your growth history, both as a company and in IT. We then discuss with you and with business management where each of you sees the company going and how you see IT supporting that growth. Different companies, in even the same business sector, can have very different histories and very different expectations.

With this information in mind, we talk with IT about where they tend to operate on the "technology continuum." In other words: How often do they turn over hardware? How aggressive are they in acquiring the newest technology? How flexible are they in appropriating funds and staff to go along with the new business or technology as it occurs? We then overlay all this information with our knowledge (some public and some under non-disclosure) as to how the industry is moving. Finally, we work up actual layouts to determine the amount of space that will be realistically required over the projected time period, both for technology and for infrastructure. Considering how hardware is getting smaller, but at the same time proliferating, and the move many companies are making toward server consolidation and virtual computing, this is not a simple task. And it is far from a "rule-of-thumb" process.

But no matter how confident we are with our analysis and projections, we are always looking to locate the data center so there is opportunity for future expansion into "soft space" -- area that can be taken over without having to move a department with difficult or expensive amenities and with nothing on the separating wall that would make its removal problematic, such as power panels or the communications demark. In many cases, this area is even equipped with raised floor, piping and power feeds in order to get heavy construction done at the least expense and with minimal later disruption.

The one "rule of thumb" we can provide is that it is generally accepted today that, for a major data center meeting the Uptime Institute's Tier 3 or Tier 4 standards, you should plan on the mechanical/electrical support space being at least another 50% (and probably closer to 100%) of the technology room space. In other words, whatever space you predict will be needed for cabinets and other technical hardware, double it.

This was first published in November 2005

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