Selecting a winning data center design team: Data center construction runbook, Chapter 2

Chapter two of our data center construction runbook advises you on how to pick a design firm and which questions to ask potential engineers and project managers.

This is the second chapter in our data center construction runbook. Each chapter will outline a specific aspect of data center design, walking you through the step-by-step process of a data center build-out. Chapter 1 focuses on data center site selection, and Chapter 3 is on selecting a general contractor.

Conceptually, designing a data center on a drafting table is a process far removed from physically pouring the concrete and installing server racks. In the real world, however, the data center design and construction processes are interrelated.

Data center designers used to rely on models developed for designing office space. Planning a budget for a data center was based on the most commonly accepted measure of expense -- cost per square foot. But for modern data center design, that's no longer the case.

"In your typical office construction, space is far and away a higher-cost component than what we call support infrastructure -- power and cooling," says Pete Sacco, president of PTS Data Center Solutions based in Franklin Lakes, N.J., and a frequent blogger on data center design topics. "In a data center, the support infrastructure is 90% of the cost. These are the reasons why we can't use your typical real estate cost-per-square-foot in pricing a data center."

Sacco further defines the difference in cost between data centers as a function of total load. As the watts-per-square-foot (or as Sacco prefers, watts-per-Rack Location Unit, borrowing a term coined by Sun Microsystems' Rob Snevely in his 2002 book, Enterprise Data Center Design and Methodology) of density rises, so too does the cost of every piece of equipment going into the data center.

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Lesson one: When choosing a designer for your data center, be wary of engineers who haven't updated their thinking as to what determines the final cost of your facility. Surprisingly, not all engineering firms specializing in data center design and project management (often called MEPs, because they are experts in mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as the plumbing you'll need to keep things cool) are designing data centers with the technologies of 2008.

James S. Coe, PE, RCDD, a senior vice president of the Syska Hennessy Group and operations director for its Critical Facilities Group, has a very specific warning in this regard.

"A lot of people were in this business before the dot-com bubble burst back in 2001, and got away from it," says Coe, who works out of Syska's Atlanta, Ga., office. "Now they're slowly working their way back to it, but a lot has changed in the seven or eight years since then. So you [should be] looking for a company that has weathered that downturn in the critical facilities economy and has been designing them during that time."

Specific data center design experience preferred
Coe also hammers the point that there's no substitute for doing a thorough resume check on each engineering firm you're considering for your data center's design. Most important is to make certain that the firm -- and the team members they intend to assign to your project -- have completed projects similar to yours. "The key things are physical size, watts-per-square-foot, and the type of building it is -- obviously, a data center," says Coe. "So I would ask, 'What's your resume for building the same size, shape, and function?'"

Furthermore, consider whether your project is a greenfield (building from scratch on an empty plot), a retrofit to a building that's never been a data center, or an expansion of an current operating data center. Has the MEP firm you're interviewing worked on these? If so, was the size and density similar? The closer you can get to hiring a firm that has essentially done a project exactly like yours, the better off you'll be.

Another of Coe's suggestions is to ensure that 60% of the MEP team members assigned to your project have worked with each other before -- the longer the better. The fact that a firm has worked on your type of project before means little if the actual people they put on your case haven't done that kind of work, and even less if these people haven't worked successfully with each other.

Picking the right people for a data center design project
Your first personnel choices in the data center design process are the most critical. "On the designer side, one of the first vendors that you want to put in place is your project manager," says Pete Marin, president of Atlanta-based T5 Partners, LLC, a development, project management firm focused on data center facilities. Marin says the project manager's role is to "establish the high-level budgets and schedule for the project based on the initial parameters." The next person you want, according to Marin, is your lead engineer.

Larry Smith, president and owner of ABR Consulting Group, Inc. based in Elk Grove, Ca., seconds the importance of having an engineer oversee, or even manage, the design. "Oftentimes when doing refurbs, we make sure that the architect is secondary," says Smith, "because it's so important in the data center that you have a good, qualified, experienced electrical/mechanical engineer." Beyond the value of your engineer's experience are his contacts, especially if your engineer is also your project manager. "A good electrical engineer with data center experience will know fire suppression experts and security experts, as well as good general contractors who understand what they're doing," says Smith. These professional referrals can be invaluable -- as long as the person doing the referring is honest, and is not just doing a favor for a less-than-qualified friend. It happens.

If you're not hiring a project manager separately, than you should look for someone with project management skills within the MEP firm you hire to design your data center. "Someone in the MEP firm should be a project manager," says Coe. "I believe project management is a specialty, not just something you also do while you're designing it. You want to hire a firm that has project management as a distinct discipline so to speak. I want to see project management experience -- I don't necessarily want to see a PMP certification. I want to see a person who was the project manager on similar projects in the past." (PMP refers to the Project Management Institute's credentials for a certified Project Management Professional.)

Different project managers and MEP firms will bring different design and budgeting approaches and biases to the table, but no matter whom you choose, be sure not to skimp on the process of reviewing their past work. Interviewing a candidate's previous clients is a good use of your time. Before construction begins, you should end up with complete plans, a design document package, and what Coe calls a "basis of design," a narrative that describes the operational and physical specifications of the building in plain language -- such that a non-engineer and non-architect can understand it. It is possible to get this far without having selected a general contractor to build your data center, but as you'll read in the next section on data center construction, that is probably not the smartest approach.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Karim Khan is former Editor-in-Chief of Business Facilities magazine.

This was first published in May 2008

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