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Building a Data Center? Here’s What You Need to Know


Cloud computing is at an all-time high. Over the past year, meetings have moved online. The document, storage, collaboration, and sharing apps have become essential for organizations of all types. All over the world, people are working from home, learning from home, and accessing all their entertainment from home.

This rising internet usage creates oceans of data… and that data needs to be processed and stored. As a result, data centers are popping up everywhere, from the Arizona desert to solar-powered data parks in India’s Andhra Pradesh.

For construction companies and general contractors, this represents a huge opportunity. But building data centers is not for the faint of heart. These are deceptively complex projects, with highly nuanced requirements.

If you’re taking on a data center construction project, here’s what you need to know.

You’re building for machines, not people

Data centers are essentially designed to house huge machines.

On one hand, that makes them simpler. You need rack space for servers, but since so few people will be moving about the space, and they’re not designed to accommodate high foot traffic, you don’t have to worry about things that generally make a workplace pleasant for humans, such as bringing in natural light.

But on the other hand, this makes them more complicated.

For one thing, data centers require constant uptime. Maintaining 99.999% uptime is crucial to so many businesses. Every second or minute lost can equal millions, or potentially billions, of lost revenue and transactions. That means they’ll have to have backup power from an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) in case the main power supply ever goes down, to act as a bridge until they can switch over to generators. For the contractor building the data center, this means you’re dealing with more electrical circuits and complexity than in other types of construction projects.

Or take fire safety. With all that hardware whirring away, there’s a substantial risk of overheating. Server rooms are crammed full of energized wires and heat sources. Plus, the strong airflow in these rooms will fan the flames.

But preventing and putting out fires in a data center is a tricky business. For a start, you can’t install sprinklers. Throwing water on computer equipment (or electrical fire) would be a disaster.

Instead, depending on the purpose of each room, you’ll need to install different types of fire extinguishing systems. Server and control rooms, for example, require centralized dry extinguishing systems, typically using nitrogen or a fire protection fluid known as “dry water”. Electrical switching rooms may require the same or they may be better suited to a modular system. For energy power supply rooms, you’ll likely need a combined gas and water extinguishing system.

It’s all about the cooling

The single biggest challenge for any data center is keeping it cool. Servers kick out a lot of heat, meaning they also need plenty of cooling capacity to keep those sensitive electrical components at a safe temperature.

Types of cooling for these kinds of operations may include:

  • Chilled water systems (and other varieties of liquid cooling). This is much more efficient than air conditioning alone because it allows you to place the cooling coils close to the heat sources for targeted cooling. As chilled water moves through the coils, it absorbs heat and transports the warm air back to the chiller.
  • Pumped refrigerant. Here, chilled water is pumped through a heat exchanger, then circulates the refrigerant through the targeted areas to draw out heat. It’s similar to a chilled water system, but with the added benefit of reducing condensation.
  • Indirect air evaporation. This involves connecting an indirect air evaporative cooler to an air duct, using cooler air from outside to help cool the interior of the data center. As such, it’s a very energy-efficient solution – but it won’t work if the data center is located somewhere where the weather outside is very hot!
  • Ventilation / free cooling techniques. This takes things a step further by allowing outside air to flow into the facility. Again, it keeps down energy use, but may also allow harmful contaminants from outside to enter the building and although this is an energy-saving technique, it has limited applicability based on building geography & climate.

The physical layout of the data center can make a big difference, too. For example, setting up racks so that the heaviest equipment will be stored at the bottom means less hot air will be dispersed at the top of the rack. This makes it easier to keep the area cool. Using blanking panels and arranging cables so that they don’t block airflow helps enormously, too. Separating aisles into hot and cold use, and containing the heat from the hot aisles, reduces pressure on the HVAC system.

You may be thinking: as a contractor, many of these design decisions will have been made beforehand. That said, having a clear understanding of how the heat will circulate from the equipment inside the building helps you to avoid mistakes or oversights during construction that will make it harder to cool.

It also means that you can add value to the project by making recommendations that will boost energy efficiency, improving the project’s sustainability credentials, and saving the building owner money later on.

Data centers are mini fortresses

Physical security is another major concern. Servers store and process massive amounts of highly sensitive data – making them prime targets for theft and attacks.

Depending on the type of data center, you may be constructing extensive hard security measures, including fences, reinforced doors, and strategically placed bollards to prevent trucks from ramming through. There’s also the infrastructure for “soft” security measures to think about, such as badge scanners, facial recognition systems, security cameras, and so on.

You’ll need to keep it clean

Data centers must be dust-free environments without exception. Any dust in the air, particularly in the server hall, can cause serious damage to sensitive electronics.

That includes construction dust, of course. Before you hand over the building to the owner, or they start to move in any equipment, you will need to ensure you’ve got the inside of the facility sparkling clean so that the dust doesn’t impact the operation of the computer hardware.

Sustainability gains add enormous value

The enormous power demands of data centers make it much harder to achieve the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Again, this is an opportunity for construction teams to add value.

To start with, you can make the kind of energy efficiency recommendations outlined above. These will potentially earn the building owner credits during the operational stage of the business. Using technologies that help to model sustainability outcomes, like digital twins, will be invaluable here.

But LEED also applies to the construction phase, where the GC can directly manage the project’s green credentials. Demonstrating to building owners that you’re committed to rolling out low-emission working practices on your job site is a great way to impress them – and, potentially, to land the contract in the first place.

Again, having the right technology is key. BIM tools and real-time updates help to monitor progress, streamline workflows, right-size equipment, and keep tabs on your energy usage.

Final thoughts: there’s a need for speed

Data centers are incredibly lucrative profit centers. In 2020, enterprise data centers owned by the four biggest players – Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google Cloud, and Facebook – reported profits of $10.2 billion, $13.3 billion, $2.8 billion, and $17.7 billion, respectively.

With so much money to be made, every day that the building owner must wait for construction to be completed represents a giant loss in revenue opportunities. If your project experiences any delays that cause it to run over schedule, they won’t be happy about it – to put it mildly.

It’s down to the contractor to prevent that from happening. Careful planning can only take you so far. Issues can crop up at any time and you need a reliable way to identify, anticipate and minimize them as soon as they emerge. You must have the technology at your fingertips to make that happen.

Find out how Hexagon PPM’s Smart Build platform can streamline your next data center construction project >

About the Author

Daron is a senior industry consultant for Hexagon’s PPM division for AEC and Buildings & Infrastructure. He has a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from Fairmont State University and a master’s degree in architecture, construction and sustainability from Virginia Tech. He is based in Charleston, S.C., USA.

Profile Photo of Daron Pardine