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Data center design best practices from a pro

From Colorado to Illinois, Tehran to New York, Robert McFarlane has innovated in data center design, power and cooling. Here are his tips for data center operators.

Data center design has to be flexible -- but not too flexible -- enough to change with the rapid pace of technology, be efficient and reliable -- three best practices many companies leave to the professionals to achieve.

Robert McFarlane is a principal in charge of data center design at Shen Milsom & Wilke LLC, with more than 35 years of experience as a data center designer, cooling and power expert.

McFarlane worked on instrumentation for a speech and hearing research lab at Colorado State University and then became director of IT for campus communications at Northern Illinois University, where he implemented telecommunication processing -- a feat that had never been done before. McFarlane later worked on interconnected mainframe data networks at the Blue Cross Association in Chicago, developed the telecommunications arm of audio-visual consulting firm Hubert Wilke -- including a stint in Iran -- and designed financial trading floors.

An expert in data center power and cooling, he helped pioneer cable design and is a corresponding member of ASHRAE TC9.9. McFarlane also teaches at Marist College's Institute for Data Center Professionals.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

Robert McFarlane: I don't care what field it is, find some way to learn the basics. Education tends to gloss over the fundamentals. Get hands-on experience but learn the history of that field -- the basics are never going to change. There are fundamentals to every field and they [remain constant].

Do you think certifications are necessary?

Robert McFarlaneRobert McFarlane

McFarlane: Since everything in technology [changes], specific certifications will become obsolete; maybe in a few years there will be a different network platform, [for example]. If you are Cisco-certified as a network engineer, you might eventually have to get new knowledge and certifications in the future for a new job or a promotion. I recommend getting basic certifications.

You have to be able to adapt and move [with the changing technology]. I don't have any certifications because I don't really have the time, or see the need for them. They aren't useless though. If I were to get certified, I would get a LEED certification because having it can be useful [in my field].

What are the most challenging issues you have faced in the data center?

McFarlane: Cooling systems are the most challenging and innovative and interesting [component] in the facility.

Next Steps

Data center designer Robert McFarlane answers your questions on geothermal cooling, transformers on mismatched high-voltage servers, ionizing air and more.

This was last published in May 2015

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