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Where and how to build your next data center in a down economy

IT organizations that need to build a new data center face a stark new financial reality in this economy. Richard Jones outlines where and how you should build your new data center facility, considering the economic climate.

I've talked to an increasing number of IT organizations that have determined they need to vacate their current data center and build a new one. The reasons have been varied, with insufficient power and cooling density topping the list. Other reasons included moving to a region with less natural disaster risk or lower tax rates, electrical rates, and labor costs; needing greater floor weight loading capacity; and building a more efficient cooling design. Whatever the reason you have for vacating a dilapidated, underpowered, overpriced, should-be-condemned facility, the questions that you must answer are "Where is the best place?" and "How should it be built?"

For more on this topic, check out our data center construction runbook.
Data center site selection, Chapter 1

Selecting a winning data center design team, Chapter 2

Selecting a general contractor, Chapter 3

Data center commissioning, Chapter 4

Keep in mind that building a new data center assumes you've done the due diligence with regards to outsourcing or retrofitting, and your business needs and economics have ruled those options out. Last year, I wrote a tech tip on determining whether to outsource, partner or manage your disaster recovery plan in-house. This tip offers some ideas on deciding your approach. Now, on to where and how to build a new data center.

Where to build a new data center
This question demands answers to the questions of cost and natural disaster risk. Let's first look at cost. The biggest cost over time is usually electrical utilities. Utility rates can vary as much as three times across the nation. Typically, areas away from large metropolitan centers have less expensive power. Within North America, the northern Midwest and most of Canada offer lower power costs. Additionally, states and provinces in these areas are willing to offer tax breaks and real estate prices are often reasonable. The gating factor that must be researched in these regions is the availability of ample Internet bandwidth. Just a few years ago, this was a big problem, but with infrastructure for cellular service being deployed virtually everywhere, the problem is rapidly disappearing. However, if your site selection requires redundant Internet connectivity, it may restrict possible locations.

For an idea of why companies are moving to newer facilities, I talked to a number of IT organizations along the U.S. Pacific coast that have recently moved or are in the process of moving to newer data center facilities in Nevada, Colorado and Iowa. I've seen some common themes between them.

  • Vacated facilities didn't meet seismic and power requirements.
  • New location offered power rates between one-half and one-third of vacated facilities.
  • New data centers are operated by remote control.

I'd like to point out that remote management technology has improved so much that there's no longer any reason to put system administrators in the physical data center. In these cases, the network operations center is still located at the company headquarters. Minimal staffing is used at the data center location except for security, maintenance and remote hands when needed to replace a bad disk drive, power supply, etc.

There are occasionally reasons to keep a data center located near or at the corporate headquarters. Examples I have seen are state governments that, for legislative and political reasons, must keep the data center in their state. Heavy manufacturing often requires that the data center controlling the manufacturing process is colocated with the factory. However, in the latter case, the recovery or archive site is located thousands of miles away.

There are other factors that must be considered when choosing a location: regional building codes; municipal taxes and tax incentives; availability of ample inexpensive water and power; risk of natural disasters, including flood plains, accessibility, political unrest, seasonal temperatures (cooler climates offer cooling savings through air economizers); and workforce availability. Once all has been considered and a location chosen, then how to build comes into question.

How to build a new data center
The general design of the structure will be done by an architect who has experience building data centers. Data centers have unique loading, cooling and power requirements that not just any architecture firm should be trusted with. The same goes for general contractors. You will want to choose a general contractor that has built a number of data centers already and will understand the need for power, cooling and cleanliness in the equipment rooms. That being said, there still are some factors that should be considered when building your next data center:

  • High ceiling. For improved airflow and efficient cooling management, you need ample overhead space for ducting. You'll want to take advantage of buoyancy principles -- cool air sinks and hot air rises. Let the hot air rise above the equipment and create a blanket of cool air that the equipment sits within.
  • Rethink raised floors. Raised floors are costly and in many ways can be regarded as only an aesthetics feature. They are actually troublesome to airflow in the data center. Most new remotely managed data centers do not have raised tile floors, equipment placed right on the concrete and cabling in overhead trays. This design is not aesthetically pleasing, but it's practical and efficient. It is much easier to pull wires through an overhead cable tray than to lift tiles and slide them underneath.
  • Cooling plant. Location of the cooling plant should also take into account the ability to use air economizers in cooler climates.
  • Plan for cell or pod designs. If you expect to expand over the life of the data center, plan for modular growth so that power and cooling equipment can be added in stages.
  • Power. The days of 5 kW per rack are now long gone. Expect densities to increase. I've talked to a number IT organizations that are now feeding and using 25 kW per rack in their data centers. Plan for 30 kW per rack. Not all racks will need that much, so planning with cell or pod designs allows you to create sections in the data center that offer high power and cooling per rack and others that offer traditional levels near 5 kW of power and associated cooling.
  • Rethink the building. Containerized data centers have been around for some time as backup or mobile units (used by government militaries for a number of years) and are just starting to gain traction in the commercial market. Most people I talk to have to spend some time warming up to the idea. I suggest that you do carefully consider the option of containerized data centers. They are not for everyone, but you may find economic value for most of your IT computing needs. Coupled with the ideas cell/pod design and excluding raised floors, you may find economic value in building a shell that can house traditional data center equipment and containerized equipment side by side.

A number of other efficient data center ideas are also floating around the Internet. As with all cases, do an economic study on each, but remember that there may be financial incentives available that can offset the costs of going green to make it economically viable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard Jones is vice president and service director for Data Center Strategies at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group. He can be reached at

What did you think of this feature? Write to's Matt Stansberry about your data center concerns at

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