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Data centres: the factors guiding their construction

We take a closer look at the construction considerations behind the ever-more critical pieces of infrastructure known data centres

|Sep 1|magazine11 min read

The business software environment is transforming from on-premise to cloud solutions. Physical media is being replaced with streamed content. The developing world is connecting to the internet at unprecedented rates. Office workers are now working from home due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All of this highlights the ever increasing importance of data centres to our daily lives.

As critical pieces of infrastructure, a consideration of how they are best constructed is therefore paramount, and has big implications for efficiency, security, sustainability and connectivity.

Data centres consume between 1 and 1.5% of the world’s energy, making up 0.3% of human generated CO2 emissions. Why? Data centres draw power to run servers, operate storage such as hard and solid state drives, maintain connectivity, and to maintain infrastructure systems such as cooling, lighting and more. The industry uses Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio between power drawn by infrastructure and power provided to equipment, with the ideal 1.0 meaning no power is wasted on anything else.

It is therefore necessary to build efficiency considerations into data centres from the beginning, affecting everything from building design to rack arrangement - a complex task considering the interaction of all these different parameters - and bringing down the PUE from the industry average of 1.67.

That never ending search for efficiency has led some data centre constructors to flex their creative muscles and find unusual solutions. Microsoft’s Project Natick for instance, reduced the cost and energy draw of cooling by burying a data centre under the sea. Using renewable energy and submarine technology to harness the surrounding cold water, Microsoft said the project had “demonstrated dramatically better reliability than our land-based counterpart.”

Another method of improving efficiency involves carefully situating a data centre to take advantage of nearby natural resources. Take Norway’s Green Mountain data centres, for instance. Not only using 100% renewable hydropower, but also water from the adjacent fjords in its cooling systems, the company lives up to its name.

Talking of green, while efficiency is partly prized because of its ability to reduce costs, it also has significant sustainability ramifications. We’ve previously spoken to Damian Farr, Managing Director Europe at DPR Construction, one of the big players in the data centre construction industry, who reiterated the fact that sustainability needs to be a consideration from the very start. “The energy efficiency of the buildings we're constructing is important. And as governments start to worry a little more about data centers and their energy use, we have a role to play in helping our customers figure out the best solutions,” he said. Avenues being explored included the use of thermal aquifer storage. “We take it very seriously and we are trying to play our part in solving the problems that our customers are facing.” 

Security is another top concern driving data centre construction. While the usual cybersecurity measures remain just as important, data centres, the interface of the physical and virtual realms, also demand top physical security - particularly those that specialise in sensitive information. Swiss Fort Knox caters to just such a demand, with two data centres built under the Swiss Alps. Featuring a dedicated runway, permanent security detail, facial recognition technology and five separate security zones, the owner Mount10 claims its data is safe from even chemical and biological attacks.

Perhaps what is prized above all by enterprise, however, is simple connectivity. With even non-communications companies such as Google getting involved in connecting the world, it’s not just a question of where you can connect to, but how quickly. It’s an ongoing trend according to Gartner, which says that by 2025, 80% of enterprises are set to migrate away from on-premise data centres, instead outsourcing to third party data centres.

In such a competitive environment, the data centre market is stratified into tiers devised by the Uptime Institute, taking into account infrastructure performance to cater to different sections of the market. Jeff Uphues, the CEO of US data centre company DC BLOX, told us of the importance of construction to achieving the correct tier. ”Beyond the connectivity, it's a question of how we build these facilities to be Tier 3-rated. It comes down to being concurrently maintainable, meaning that if any one system in the building fails, there is a backup system that can take over. It’s part of the design, it's in the materials and the type of vendors that we use. It's in the architecture for how we connect them together.”

Data centres were on an upwards trajectory even before COVID-19 supercharged their necessity. Their construction, therefore, requires a deep consideration of these factors, not only to attract custom, but to prevent them becoming a burden on the planet.

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