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Avoid a tug of war with the facilities department

Like it or not, the facilities manager controls a lot of systems in your data center -- and that means much of your success depends largely on how well you work as a team.

Does your IT staff appreciate the thermal and electricity loads they impose in their space?

Does your facility manager understand why you do not want to run chilled water from the towers on the roof to cool your servers?

They probably don't, but they should. Because like it or not, responsibilities in the data center are shared by two groups with different priorities and goals. The butting of heads may seem impossible to avoid.

But data center managers admit that nurturing a solid working relationship with the facilities department -- the guys who are responsible for much of the physical side of the data center -- is difficult, but absolutely necessary.

The biggest factor in data center management is the competence of the facility manager and the level of trust between the IT staff and the FM staff.
Tom Condon
senior consultantSystem Development Integration

One of the challenges of the IT professional is to inspire a sense of urgency with the facility manager. Having to rely on facilities for things such as cooling and heating can be a frustrating experience because their priorities can seem so vastly out of step with yours.

"The data center is just one of the needs on a list, including a backed-up toilet and a carpet replacement," said Mike Turner, IS director of infrastructure for Orbital Sciences Corp., a aerospace company in Dulles, Va. "A good relationship will help establish your data center's priority. Managing a relationship with facilities is like managing an outside vendor relationship. We're competing for priorities with them, just like we would with an outside vendor."

Tom Condon, senior consultant with Chicago-based System Development Integration, said typically, facility managers are responsible for the maintenance of HVAC and other systems, but data center managers would have their own environmental monitoring systems that alert IT staff if the temperature exceeds safe limits.

The lines of responsibility are not so clearly drawn and this can create problems.

"The biggest factor in data center management is the competence of the facility manager and the level of trust between the IT staff and the FM staff," Condon said. "The data center manager is betting the organization's productivity [and his career] on reliable facility systems."

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Turner has been involved in several data center remodels and construction projects, ranging from a few hundred square feet to 10,000 square feet. And, according to Turner, becoming a team player on the facility department is a necessity.

That means IT staff should be able to use common sense and communication to help facility managers do their jobs, instead of just asking for more power and cooling.

"IT staff are going to need to learn how to manage their power and cooling needs in the same way that they manage their networks," said Robert E. McFarlane, president of the Interport Financial Division of New York-based Shen, Milsom & Wilke Inc. "These are bits-and-bytes people, so most management of the physical data center will be foreign to them," McFarlane said.

But McFarlane offered these simple suggestions to help IT staff work with the facilities department:

• Manage electric loads at 50% capacity on the circuit whenever possible.

• Start servers at the bottom of the rack and work up as you need them.

• Block unused spaces in the cabinet with space holders to avoid losing cooled air into the hot aisle.

• Seal all openings in the floor not meant to be air passage openings with tape or grommets; don't waste underfloor air capacity where it is not needed.

• Keep the hottest equipment slightly away from the AC unit. You want it where the cool air is delivered -- a few cabinets down the line from the AC unit, near the bottom of the rack.

According to Turner, it is also important that IT employees explain their needs to the facility department. A facility manager will address their requests more efficiently if they understand their own needs. And it can also help convince facility executives that IT is not just trying to burn down their budgets.

"Being aware of your equipment's BTUs and watts per square foot, this is how data center managers can help explain their needs to the facility department in terms they understand," Turner said. "Facility managers understand what watts per square foot imply in relationship to BTUs. A good facility manager would understand what that means for air flow."

Facility management technologies don't keep up with the shrinking half-life of IT, so often facility executives will be unaware of the pace of change. According to Condon, if you spoke to a facility manager in 1979 about computer systems, you would find that he did not think about it. Following the PC revolution, many facility managers were scrambling to make space, using a spare office with extra cooling and power lines installed. Then the Internet era caught the profession by surprise, as nearly every organization dramatically increased requirements for servers to host data.

"Today, we are again seeing major changes in the relationship between the facility manager and the data center," Condon said. "The adoption of high-density computing means that facility managers now have to re-evaluate the data center concepts they thought they had perfected."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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