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Target builds a better data center

Matt Stansberry
Retail giant Target Corp. is currently in construction on a brand new data center to keep up with business growth. The company built one just five years ago, but the IT staff expects to have to build one every five years if growth keeps up.

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At that rate, Target technical architect Doug Hall is going to get really good at building out data centers. With the design and construction of two data centers under his belt, Hall spoke at Afcom's Data Center World conference last week showing his colleagues what it takes to run a world-class operation.

SearchDataCenter.com caught up with Hall after his best practices session to talk about the construction process. "We've got steel and concrete up" on the new data center, Hall said. "We broke ground in October [2005], and we're set to take possession in September of 2007. It's been 23 months of a build process. We spent about six months previous to that doing design work, and we continue to tweak the design."

According to Hall, data centers eventually run out of one of four things first: space, power, cooling capacity or network ports. Target's initial justification for building the new facility was because it needed more space.

"Unfortunately, we don't have a metric defined that works out a ratio of how many stores to servers," Hall said. "As we add stores and resources, you add more servers, you need more space. Look at pharmacy -- Target hasn't been involved in it that long. There is a lot of data processing there. Credit cards, just the stores themselves, Internet hosting -- growth is good, but you need to add more buildings."

Hall is taking what he learned building the 45,000 square foot data center in Brooklyn Park, Minn., five years ago and applying it to the newest facility. He's also learning from others.

"This one was much easier than the first one," Hall said. "We know a lot more. We're a lot smarter today than we were five or six years ago."

Hall visited quite a few data centers, interviewed people on best practices and attended a lot of conferences. One group was particularly helpful, according to Hall -- "Site Uptime Network [formed in 1993 by The Uptime Institute, Inc.] has 80 member companies and all data center facilities management folks. No vendors allowed while we give presentations to each other. If you host a meeting, you give a tour of your facility."

Hall strongly recommends getting out and meeting people to learn how to build a better facility. "We plagiarize like crazy. It's not all our original ideas."

Some of the changes Hall made to the new facility were simple and some were major. The two biggest changes to the new data center are capacity for chilled water heat exchangers and setting the facility up to handle medium voltage.

"We've got water-cooled Liebert units on our floor, but we're actually putting in a provision for heat exchangers if the day comes where we need to bring them in. We're not installing them today, we've got the space and the taps," Hall said.

In a medium-voltage facility, transformers are sitting adjacent to the property and the company has control of power distribution. It saves on conductors and gives more capacity to the building.

"You can send more power to the floor with medium voltage. It's very common in high-density data centers. Beyond 100W per square foot, you need medium voltage -- you just flat-out have to have more power available," Hall said. "The first building we built, we wanted to put it in, but it got beyond our budget. It was on your wish list, but it didn't get granted."

Other things were more simple, like a flow alarm on the emergency eyewash. "We didn't have a flow sensor," Hall said. "Someone could be down in the emergency shower room and nobody knows they're there. It's required by law to have the shower, but [the sensor] is one of those 'no kidding' things we came up with [from visiting other facilities]."

Hall offered three pieces of advice for data center pros considering building a new facility:

  • Build the building to the Uptime Institute's Tier-3 standard, which means the facility is concurrently maintainable. You can shut down portions of your system and maintain it while still keeping the load available on the raised floor. You need to be able to do maintenance on anything and not affect the operation of your data center. There are a lot of companies that are Tier-4, completely redundant on all infrastructures.
  • Have facility and security staff on site to respond to instances 24/7. Even if it's nothing more than having someone manning the main security desk checking card access to the data center in case someone needs to get in at 3 a.m. in the morning.
  • Maintain strict policies and procedures on operations in the data center. Target has four people assigned to raised floor management. No one is allowed to plug in a piece of equipment except those four guys. You have a server technician or network designer, but they're not an installation expert. Also, Target prints labels on every piece of equipment, using an alpha numeric grid system that coincides with its raised floor -- equipment names are based on grid locations. And if it doesn't have a label, it doesn't go in the data center.

    Despite these recommendations, Hall said one of the biggest challenges is coordinating between all of the parties involved. "We get input from so many different sources," Hall said. "Within our organization we've got the facilities managers, server and network people, security, general contractors, architects."

    Every two weeks Hall gets all of the parties together, 25-30 people, and runs down an agenda, talking about the topics of the day and discussing issues with the construction.

    "For the three of us [Target's IT facility staff], some portion of every day is spent working on this building," Hall said. "We want to be very involved in the design."

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


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