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Building a data center -- is your team without a coach?

This column originally appeared on TechTarget's Expert Answer Center as a post in Robert McFarlane's blog. Robert served as the on-demand expert on the Expert Answer Center for two weeks in October to November 2005, during which he was available to quickly answer questions on data center design as well as to write daily blog entries. Keep an eye on the Expert Answer Center for topics that could help your IT shop.

Building a data center could be considered the multi-million-dollar "big game" for a business -- probably the most...

critical and expensive single space your company will ever build, and the action changes constantly. A team of players has been signed. Hopefully, everyone is all-star caliber. But is information technology even there? For IT, this is not just another job -- it's the foundation of a career. They really ought to be playing quarterback, but we all know it rarely works that way.

IT is often sitting on the bench, or even left in the locker room. If they're allowed on the field, they may not be heard when they try to call a play, or they have no defense and are sacked before they can get off their first pass. But when the game is finished, and the stands are empty, it's IT that will be responsible for making the place a success, and it's IT that will be blamed for its failures. They know the playing field better than anyone else. So why are they so often on the sidelines, and what can be done about it?

It's not really that hard to understand. IT doesn't talk the same language as the rest of the team, nor does the rest of the team speak IT. Everyone knows the data center is the "heart" of modern business, but few in IT are accustomed to the professional design process that builds it. They don't communicate well with the "non-IT" world and, quite frankly, they scare "outsiders." And its well known that most ITers tend to delve into the "nitty gritty" at the concept stage, so they're regarded as indifferent to budgets or the clock running out. Most of the team will have had experience with IT people before, much of which may have prejudiced them, so the team shouldn't be surprising if they're fearful about heavy IT involvement slowing down the process. But make no mistake: The design team is also very interested in having a good project.

What everybody needs is a good coach.

But wait. There's more. The "team" of professionals includes a whole range of talents: architect, facilities, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, structural engineer, plumbing and fire protection engineer, cable designer, general contractor, sub-contractors for every trade, and perhaps a realtor, owners rep, finance and more. In short, you have a lot of individual talent, and perhaps some "vested interests," but you may be surprised to learn there is often not much real "team play" among them in this all-important game.

The architect is the general manager, but a good coach is still needed. The data center is a very unique area.

This last blog may seem self-serving, but it's really meant to serve everybody. There aren't a lot of us yet who make data center design a real specialty, who are up to date on the latest technology and techniques, and who are also able to speak the languages of everyone on the team. A handful of engineering firms have someone who can do it. There are some design-build firms that have all the talent under one roof, but they probably won't be the favorite of the architect on a multi-part project. The big hardware vendors provide consulting, but most owners find it difficult to consider them independent. And there are those few IT consultants with this kind of specialization. Again, there're aren't many of us right now, but it's worth looking for someone good with so much at stake.

So let's talk about what a winning coach will do in a data center project.

First is to make sure both timetables and budgets are realistic. Designing and building a data center takes time. Period. If you try to push it or do it cheap, you'll pay in any number of ways, both initially and down the road. A major data center (10,000 sq. ft. or larger) could easily take a year and a half or more. If someone is reluctant to take on your project because the timetable is too short, I suggest you respect them. They're probably telling it like it is and are unwilling to risk your future, or their reputation, on something that will be nothing but problems. Someone with knowledge and experience is usually better heard.

Schedule is usually the biggest headache when the data center is part of a larger project, rather than a standalone facility. Even if the entire timetable is long enough, the data center has to be completely ready (and I emphasize "completely") at least two or three months before the first people move into the building. Without this time the systems can't be installed and tested the way they need to be. An experienced specialist, knowledgeable in all facets of the design and construction process, cannot only make the point strongly, but can help schedule the various facets of the job so it really can get done. They are also in a position to monitor construction, alleviate concern over things that waste time and don't yet matter, and be very vocal at every meeting about the things that do. You can't wait until the week before a deadline to blow the whistle on status. It has to be an ongoing process, and it has to be backed up with knowledge.

Where most projects go astray, get into trouble or go over budget is in design. The architect needs to know how big the space must be, and the engineers need power and heat load figures, and they need them right at the beginning. Unless you do this every day and understand the total design process, developing that information early in the project and presenting it so it's both useful and justifiable to the various disciplines is very difficult to do. And if you can't do this, one of two things will happen: Either the project will get delayed with IT getting the blame, or the individual designers will base their work on "norms" that may be totally unrealistic for your facility. When IT then rushes in with what they really need later in the game, it will involve very expensive change orders if it can be done at all. Not the best way to play the game. The old adage applies: "You can have it good, fast, cheap. Which two do you want?"

Next are three issues: design detail, best practices and balanced design. It really doesn't need to be said again that data centers are very expensive facilities. And they get outrageously expensive when change orders are necessary. Nearly all change orders can be avoided IF the project is thoroughly designed and detailed. Again, this takes time, but the level of detail is also beyond what is normal for standard construction. Someone needs to know what's necessary, and be in a position to insist on it. And even if it's detailed, and each team specialist is superb, if they're all "doing their own thing" you're not going to spend wisely. The likelihood is you'll spend beaucoup bucks on one system, like power, that is designed for ultra-reliability and redundancy, but have something else like air conditioning that is relatively under-designed and one day throws the UPS into thermal failure when it goes down. The configurations of each system should meet performance goals that are realistic for your operation, without going overboard and wasting budget somewhere that doesn't need it or under-designing through lack of understanding in someplace that does. A good coach will outline the plays for each member of the team and make sure they are executing them properly.

Next is the most challenging part of today's data center design -- planning ahead. It's unrealistic to expect team members who daily work on a wide variety of projects to keep up with everything happening in the IT world or with the all the special products coming onto the market to handle the power, heat, cable management, monitoring and equipment mounting challenges. It's even more unrealistic to assume they maintain close industry contacts that keep them apprised of what's coming or that they attend all the seminars where ideas, experiences and non-proprietary information is exchanged. A good data center today should have the flexibility to absorb coming technologies for some years in the future, but that kind of planning takes intimate knowledge of IT industry directions. In addition, decisions have to be made between what really works and what's marketing hype, as well as the appropriate tactics for a particular facility. A good "coach" should be scouting the field of players, and knowledgably assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

Last is the game itself -- construction. There isn't a single part of a data center that doesn't require some sort of special attention to construction technique. It takes someone who was involved in the design process and who also understands each system and how it should be built to assist in the bid review and contractor selection process and to make site visits and catch problems before they become hidden or impractical to correct. Again, the job of a good coach should be to recognize good players, make them better at their roles, spot the mistakes and get them fixed.

In short, a professional "coach" brings to the table not only a wealth of experience, but a good game plan and the ability to communicate it as well. Building a new data center can be a wonderful opportunity. It can also be a career disaster. It may look gorgeous on Day 1, no matter how well it's really designed and built, because it's all new, clean and organized. But if someone has to tell upper management in a few years that it needs to be replaced or renovated, there will be some tall explaining to do. Numbers of data centers built only a short time ago are already being replaced because they weren't designed with the future in mind and can't be realistically upgraded without seriously endangering operations. If you have any part of the responsibility, whether you're in IT, facilities or management, you have a tremendous challenge ahead of you. A good coach can make it a lot easier.

 


Even though Robert's stint on the Expert Answer Center is over, he is always ready to answer your questions on SearchDataCenter.com. Ask him your most pressing data center design question.


 

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