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Data center site selection: Data center construction runbook, Chapter 1

Data center site selection is the first step in a data center design and construction project. This guide provides resources to find the cheapest, safest data center locations.

This is the first chapter in our data center design 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 2 focuses on selecting a data center design team, and Chapter 3 is on general contractor selection for data centers.
The data center construction boom is officially on and companies are looking to consolidate multiple outlying, outdated facilities. The regional price of power matters more than ever, so finding the right data center location has become increasingly important.

Site selection resources
Site selection expert Karim Khan created an overview of site selection resources for data center managers. This is a great starting point for data center managers looking to research potential data center locations.

Infrastructure, utilities and more:
Who runs the data center design standards show?

Business Facilities: The Location Advisor

Site selection trend: Rural data centers

Data center site selection white paper by John Rath of Rath Consulting

Forrester Research's Considerations in Data Center Site Selection 

It turns out that while there are differences between choosing a site for a data center and choosing a site for a manufacturing plant, there are even more similarities. In other words, the same process applies to all major location decisions; only the location requirements vary. It all starts with an understanding of the process—how to take inventory of your needs and where to turn when it's time to research the blinding array of property, shell buildings, tax incentives and intrinsic location advantages available to you. This collection of online tools, databases, and articles will get you going in the right direction, while it's still early enough to avoid making big mistakes.

Use an analytical approach to narrow your options
Using a numerical approach to winnow the locations will help you get a grip on the process. Team Pennsylvania, a quasi-governmental organization promoting investment in Pennsylvania, operates PA Site Search, which offers superior site detail and breadth—only for sites in Pennsylvania, of course. Despite being produced and hosted by an organization that wants to persuade you to choose Pennsylvania for your next data center, you'd be hard pressed to find a more objective and succinct overview of the best-practice approach to selecting a site than PA Site Search's site selection guide.

Consider staffing potential
Understanding the goals of the communities you're working with when you pick a location for a new data center is also important. The International Economic Development Council (IEDC) is the master organization for everything from your local business investment promotion agency to your state-level department of job creation under the direct oversight of the governor.

These state, regional, county, and municipal economic developers are your partners in bringing a new data center project to fruition. They want you're data center build-out to succeed and will let you know exactly which grants, worker training programs and tax credits you qualify for. Their main responsibility, however, is to improve the economic environment and quality of life for the citizens they represent, so it pays to have an understanding of their profession and the IEDC.

Read about issues related to choosing sites in specialty publications
There are three major U.S.-based "site books" remaining in the field today (full disclosure: the author edits one of these magazines, Business Facilities).

Serious students boning up on where companies of all stripes are locating their facilities should review Business Facilities, which examines trends in facility and data center site selection. Going to the Online Site Seekers' Guide on the site will lead you to contact information for the major economic development agencies in the U.S., plus quite a few in Canada as well as overseas agencies.

The publishers of Site Selection, Conway Data, sell a unique product called New Plant Report. It's a database of industrial relocations and expansions dating back to 1989. Although it's not clear how many data centers are covered, the database has the potential to be useful if you're looking for a history of where other companies like yours have expanded over the past 20 years.

Another major American publication is Area Development. There is also one London-based publication, Foreign Direct Investment (fDi), a unit of the Financial Times, with a more global focus.

Collect the state and federal tax credits you're entitled to (U.S. locations only)
Prof. Charles Swenson, PhD, CPA, a professor and Leventhal Research Fellow at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, is an advisor for the National Tax Credit Group, LLC, where a lot of helpful information can be found. Start by clicking Free Site Selection Software to be taken to the SiteLocator product. You'll get to input your facility type (there is no option for data center, so you can either use the Other box or choose Call Centers, which has some similar infrastructure requirements); choose the regions, states, or cities you're interested in; choosing Quick Look at Data to view tables comparing labor issues, infrastructure issues, and other cost factors.

Alternatively, you can choose the SiteLocator Algorithm, which will gather information from you about your data center needs and finish with a rating for how well each location matches. No serious site selector will use this product alone to make a final decision, but to put together some ideas and talking points concerning the location of your next data center, this is a great start.

Also check out the trial version of National Tax Credit Group's Tax Zone Locator 2.0. Enter any U.S. address and it will tell you if the property is located within a number of special zones that entitle a business to valuable tax credits and rebates.

Look for property in online databases
Once you've narrowed your data center site selection to state or city, you can get down to comparing land and property, including existing facilities for sale starting with LoopNet. Next, try Fast Facility, which is associated with Area Development magazine. Both are commercial ventures, and they have the advantage of covering the entire country and beyond. They are not, however, the last word in available property and facilities. Many of the best properties, for various reasons (including the cost of listing and trust between parties) are only listed in databases maintained by economic development agencies (see PA Site Selection).

There are too many state-level property databases to list in this space; your best bet is to navigate to the main economic development agency website for the state you're interested in and look for the link to available properties, available sites, find a site, etc. Most states in the U.S. have such a database online. To find the Web address for a given state's main economic development agency, search online for 'Connecticut economic development' for example—you'll find what you're looking for among the first few results.

It's worth noting that in some areas, a local utility may offer an excellent regional property database. National Grid offers such a database for parts of Upstate New York, and Kansas City, MO-based utility Aquila, Inc. offers a 16-state database called LocationOne Information System.

Compare states across a broad range of criteria
North Carolina's Department of Commerce has graciously put together one-page PDFs that comparing North Carolina to each of the other 49 states—a nice way to get the raw data on everything from the number of business failures to the percentage of college grads among residents over age 25. Note: getting these PDFs can be a little tricky for non-Internet Explorer users. But you can skip the interface and download the PDF you want directly. In the URL, where FL is the U.S. Postal Service abbreviation for Florida, replace it with the state you want to see lined up against North Carolina.

Once the CFO is ready to get involved in your data center site selection project, Ryan Co. offers a clickable map of the United States that leads to a nice page of contacts, plus tax and legal climate overviews that will be useful.

Data center locations ranked by operating cost
In 2006 and 2007, Princeton, N.J.-based site selection specialists, The Boyd Company Inc, published its list of the best places to build a data center based on estimated annual operating costs. Sioux Falls, South Dakota came in as the cheapest location both years.

The 2006 data center operating cost analysis differed from the 2007 data center location report in that the latter focused on the health care sector. also explored the trends that are driving mega data centers to specific regions in the U.S. For example, Bridget Botelho investigated the factors driving Google to build a data center in the prairie along the Missouri River in Iowa. Also, plenty of Web 2.0 companies are flocking to Central Washington as a data center location, for cheap hydroelectric power, temperate climate and relative safety from natural disasters.

Data center site selection goes international
Late in 2007, Associate Editor Adam Trujillo took a look at far flung data center locations, including Siberia, in his report on international data center site selection. News Writer Mark Fontecchio included an interactive map featuring Antarctica's data center potential.

Fontecchio also studied the benefits of moving your data center to Iceland:

  • About 72% of Iceland's energy consumption comes from hydroelectric and geothermal energy; the only fossil fuels used are for cars and fishing vessels.
  • Temperatures are cold but stable, between 32 degrees and 55 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year.
  • And the corporate tax rate in Iceland is about 18%, less than half of the 39% in the U.S., according to figures from the Congressional Budget Office.

Data center locations and disaster avoidance
There are a number of security and disaster considerations that come into play when deciding where to locate a data center. Security expert Thor Mollung offers advice for data center managers wondering whether they should locate data centers and corporate headquarters together or apart. Mollung also advises data center pros to consider all of the vulnerabilities associated with a planned data center location.

For a more detailed look at disaster recovery and security issues around locations, check out this data center site selection presentation from J.P. Callahan, security expert at Verizon Business. Registration is required to view the presentation, but this professional paranoid outlined the things you need to know at the 2007 Data Center Decisions conference.

Renovate, buy new or go mobile for data center expansion?
Should you renovate your outdated data center or build new? A lot of companies don't have a choice -- but for those that do need to consider the challenges of retrofitting an older data center. According to Forsythe Solutions, it's less risky to build a new facility than upgrading an old data center. While most experts try to dissuade companies from retrofitting, some don't have a choice. Expert Carrie Higbie offers users a checklist for moving into an older data center.

In addition to brick and mortar solutions, some companies are opting for mobile data centers -- cargo trailers filled with computing and infrastructure gear. Sun Microsystems rolled out Project BlackBox with major fanfare and a bit of mockery in 2006. The company recently renamed the project the Sun Modular Data Center S20 and provides a fact sheet on its Web site, touting the flexibility it offers companies looking for fast expansion.

Sun isn't the only company in the data center trailer business. recently outlined the available options and economics of modular data centers in this report. And Rackable Systems launched the Ice Cube in 2007, and it won silver in's products of the year awards.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Matt Stansberry is's senior site editor. Write to him about your data center concerns at [email protected]. Karim Khan is the Editor-in-Chief of Business Facilities magazine

Chapter 2 focuses on selecting a winning data center design team.

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