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Building with modern data center design in mind

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Data center design: How to avoid a $5 million mistake

Designing a new data center isn’t just the purview of IT. Getting input from all angles can avoid costly mistakes.

During a recent customer meeting, I noticed an unfortunate trend in data center design projects. The increase in equipment density has boosted the complexity of data center design to the point where customers now experience multimillion-dollar overruns on projects that still fall short of the design objectives of N+1 (what’s needed to support the load, plus one for redundancy) infrastructure.

It is clear that the challenge of designing, building and operating high-density, high-efficiency facilities doesn’t stop with the design and engineering of the facility. It also requires a well-organized governance structure overseeing the efforts of a specialized, experienced and unbiased team. With millions of dollars at stake, we’ve seen shortcuts translate into ugly and expensive mistakes.

The Importance of Expertise

In this recent client’s case, the IT team tried to do everything right in building a facility, but still ran into major problems. (As a note, I’m going to change the particulars to keep the company anonymous; for the sake of argument, let’s say it is a biotech firm.) Essentially, the company was building a new data center, and it let the facilities team drive the boat in terms of the design and build process. The facilities team had always worked closely with an engineering company with a lot of experience building clean rooms. Clean rooms are pretty similar to data centers, so how hard could it be? In a good-faith effort, the engineering team did its homework to design a highly redundant N+1 facility. Unfortunately, though, the end result was a facility with multiple single points of failure. Without the relevant data center experience, the engineers mixed things up and planned and built the facility with 12 2MW backup generators when seven would have sufficed. Ouch: That’s a $5 million mistake. To make matters worse, the cooling capacity was insufficient to cool the required 8 MW of IT load at an N+1 level. You get the picture: The project required highly specialized data center design knowledge to prevent a major issue; now that same expertise is being used to fix what could have been done right the first time.

The combination of unbalanced governance, biased vendors and advisers, and inexperienced team members resulted in a painful and expensive outcome. IT executives constantly strive to make IT a strategic element of their business organizations. But overspending on inadequate data center infrastructure creates a professional hole that is often difficult to climb out of.

So what’s the solution? There’s no silver bullet, but finding trusted advisers with relevant experience is a good start. Developing a governance model that elicits input from the entire organization creates an environment that enables a successful outcome. Except for the very largest, most sophisticated organizations, the chance of any IT organization having all the answers in-house is small. IT leaders need to know what they’re good at and where to go to get the answers they can’t supply from within their teams. And most of all, they need to keep asking the hard questions—the ones to which they don’t already know the answers.

About the author:
Steve Gunderson is a principal at
Transitional Data Services.

This was first published in November 2012

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Essential Guide

Building with modern data center design in mind

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