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Data center site selection: An art and a science, says Digital Realty Trust

Bridget Botelho
San Francisco-based Digital Realty Trust operates more than 2 million square feet of data center space in the U.S. and knows a thing or two about choosing the right location for a data center. Chris Crosby, the senior vice president of

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Digital Realty Trust, offered tips and tricks of the trade during the Data Center Decisions conference in Chicago this week.

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"Finding a great site for your data center won't get you kudos, but finding the wrong one will get you fired," because it will cost a company millions of dollars, Crosby said.

As the largest data center operator in the country, promising 99.999% uptime, Digital Realty Trust looks at the process of choosing data center sites not as a selection process but as an elimination process, Crosby said.

Digital Realty Trust relies on what it considers various red flags to eliminate a site up front: seismic risk, weather-related risks and security concerns, Crosby said.

By the same token, some factors prompt data site selectors to eliminate a site even though these factors shouldn't be cause for alarm, such as visual issues, like bad paint and torn carpeting. "You have to be able to spot the diamond in the rough," Crosby said. "Construction issues can be fixed easily if you know what you are doing."

Laying out priorities can eliminate unsuitable sites quickly. Things like security, the cost and availability of power, taxes, the location of support personnel, and telecommunication costs are usually important, though priorities vary by industry; Internet companies tend to focus on power costs, while financial firms often focus on synchronous communications distances, he said.

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Knowledge is power
Proper site selection requires the expertise of people in a variety of fields, including real estate, hazard and risk, power and fiber, and design and construction. Having experts who know where to look and what to avoid can save a company millions of dollars.

When it comes to real estate, companies shouldn't necessarily follow the leader. "You'll read that Microsoft is going into Quincy, Wash., and think, 'Well, why aren't we going into Quincy?' But every company has different criteria for where their data center should be located," Crosby said. "Understanding the requirements of the data center can narrow the field very quickly for the real estate component."

When choosing a site, a company should identify its neighbors too. Is there a chemical plant next door? Is a nearby residential area under construction that will strain future resources? These factors all affect the success of the data center, he said.

Those responsible for choosing a data center site also need to have a certain mindset: that is, that the site should support the company's IT operations over the subsequent 20 to 30 years, including having enough power and fiber.

Crosby said that site selection requires knowing the power capacity of a site and whether the site has access to fiber. In fact, the square footage of a site isn't nearly as important as its power availability and cost, he said.

Conference attendee Raymond Papart, the director of data center operations at the University of Chicago, agreed. He said the university is building a Tier 3 data center in Hyde Park, Ill., and ensuring enough available power is the most important factor in site selection -- especially since another data center site ran out of power capacity before it was even completed, he said.

In addition to making sure there is enough power, Digital Realty negotiates power prices with utility companies and takes advantage of rebates offered by utility providers. Companies like Pacific Gas & Electric in California offer cost savings to companies that deploy power-saving technologies like virtualization.

Regulations surrounding power consumption have also become more of an issue today, and different states and communities have different rules. For example, a data center site selection team may find that a town in New Jersey allows generators to run anywhere for any length of time, while another community requires permits, Crosby said.

"These are very important items that can prevent a facility from doing what it is supposed to," Crosby said. "You need to know how to approach the local community and how to work with them."

And all of this legwork to find a data center shouldn't take longer than 12 months to 18 months, Crosby said -- Digital Realty usually takes about six.

"If it has taken you three years to find a site, your site may fail because your infrastructure needs are probably different from when you started," Crosby said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer. And check out our data center blogs; Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead, and Data Center Facilities Pro.


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