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Retrofitting old data centers may be ill-advised

Data centers built 30 years ago to house a water-cooled mainframe have little in common with modern facilities being built today; nor are older data centers uncommon. According to research firm IDC, the average data center is 17 years old.

With the rising power and cooling demands in today's data centers, retrofitting decades-old server rooms is becoming less and less feasible, said Steven Harris, director of data center planning and design for Skokie, Ill.-based IT consultancy Forsythe Solutions Group. Building new may be the way to go.

@36937 That may come as bad news for some data center operators, as a recent study showed that only15% of organizations have no plans to expand or build new data centers in the future.

In this Q&A, Stephen Harris talks about what separates modern from older data centers and some of the challenges inherent in retrofitting them to meet today's stringent power and cooling demands.

What is your definition of a data center? I see all types of computing environments in my work. The ones I would...

consider to be a data center were designed and constructed to actually support information technology. I've seen other rooms or environments that weren't originally designed to support information technology but have grown because someone threw a server into a closet or a small room. It's basically been Band-Aided and hodge-podged together, but it's not a data center. A real data center is designed and constructed with the intent to support information technology. How often do you see each? I see more real data centers than I did five or seven years ago. The data centers I do see are old. There are plenty of levels, too. For example, last Thursday I was in a client data center that was originally designed and constructed as a mainframe environment, but it's 30 years old and having difficulty supporting a 21st century computing environment. I'm seeing fewer server rooms, out of necessity. What people want to put in server rooms requires more power and cooling than what you can typically find in a closet. What's the difference between an old data center and one built today? A data center 25 years ago was built for an entirely different class of computing equipment. Mainframes did not require the same amount of power and cooling that today's server and storage environment today does. It likely had a water-cooled mainframe, and once you have water-cooled equipment you don't need ambient cooling. In a lot of cases you had a lot of floor space with minimal power and cooling. Today there is less floor space but more power and cooling. Why was there more floor space back then? All of the old equipment was physically enormous compared to what we have today from an IT standpoint. So is it better to adapt an old data center for today or just build new? There are cases where they can adapt, but if you're dealing with an existing data center, if it's still operating as an IT environment, it can be risky and costly to retrofit that environment too much. In a lot of cases you need to take outages, and you're going to have electricians and construction folks in the data center that represent a security risk. But if you build new you'll have to deal with an outage too, right? You're still going to have to pick up equipment from the old data center and move it over to the new data center, but in many cases that's one outage. If you're retrofitting you might have to take multiple outages. Also, most buildings are designed with a maximum capacity of power and cooling. In a lot of cases you're stymied by situations that currently exist. The back infrastructure for the building may not be capable of handling upgrades from a power and cooling standpoint.

Retrofitting, when it becomes a major retrofit -- we're talking a 25-, 30-year-old data center -- will be more expensive, more time consuming and more risky. I just want to make sure that we categorize that as a major retrofit as compared to a five-year-old data center, which can handle minor upgrades. How old are the data centers that you're called to work on?
The average age of data centers that I'm seeing are 10-plus years old. It's a combination of age or, in some cases, younger data centers weren't designed as well as they had hoped. I do see some younger data centers that were just designed a little bit short. So how do you determine if your data center is outdated?
It's a balancing act between keeping up and doing general maintenance. I think you start to see a typical data center, you start to see age set in around 10 years old. That's when a lot of things you originally bought are going to need replacement, things like air-conditioners and UPS systems. Also, if you've outgrown power and cooling capabilities, you may see deficiencies. You may find that you don't have enough power and cooling to support your data center.

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