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Exceptional risk management sees data centre delivered to highest standards

A photo of the Centrex building

2 August 2013 - In today’s world of rapidly developing technology, businesses require increasingly advanced solutions to protect their data and virtual assets. 

At the core of many modern business operations are data centre facilities which run applications that handle business and operational data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Accordingly, data centres are required to achieve uncompromising levels of performance.

The Telkom central exchange (Centrex) building, situated in Durban’s CBD and managed by the Total Facilities Management Company (TFMC), is no different. It was identified in 2006 that this data centre facility, part of a complex of Telkom buildings, required a substantial upgrade in order to ensure ongoing high levels of performance, including the improvement of its HVAC and electrical systems, and replacement of the centre’s main transformers, generators and electrical distribution systems.

Aurecon was subsequently appointed by TFMC as the external project manager tasked with oversight of the design, construction and hand-over phases of the project. “The primary objective of the project was to achieve minimum reliability of 99.995% for the HVAC and electrical systems servicing the building, rendering it capable of handling multiple contingency failure scenarios,” explains Richard Ahlschlager, Aurecon Project Manager during the design phase.

Integrating risk management into project planning
“In today’s terms, ‘high performance’ has come to mean ‘zero down-time’,” believes Ahlschlager. He adds that it takes virtually ‘fail-proof’ design to achieve this. “The upgrade of an existing facility involves a number of additional risks to a new build project, including having to ensure construction does not hamper ‘business as usual’ or endanger building occupants in any way. In addition, site conditions are often particularly constrained.  A successful upgrade depends on a project team’s ability to identify, mitigate and manage these risks on an ongoing basis.”

Aurecon integrated risk management into each stage of the Centrex upgrade through the compilation of a comprehensive project plan based on the industry best-practice Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) system. This plan ensured that multiple project complexities and risks were addressed throughout each and every project phase and was closely monitored in terms of adherence.

As part of this plan, and ahead of the design phase, a detailed risk analysis was carried out through interactive stakeholder workshops with building staff, management and TFMC. This enabled Aurecon to categorise and rank risks, as well as develop appropriate mitigation strategies.

Just one example of a risk identified and a solution proposed was the presence of up to 200 contractors on the technologically sensitive site. To combat the risk of theft and improper access to areas where sensitive information equipment was housed, tight access control measures were implemented, including CCTV cameras and colour-coded hard hats for the different teams working in different areas.

Ensuring the right resources were in place
In addition to close management of the design phase, Aurecon, together with TFMC, selected a high calibre team to execute the design. Following initial scoping of the project, it soon became clear that a highly skilled, high performance team would be required to execute the project plan. “TFMC were fully supportive of our recommendation to ramp up project resources,” says Ahlschlager, adding that “A strong, expanded team with the correct expertise to tackle such a complex project depended on innovative tender methods.” 

Novel tender mechanism
Following evaluation of a number of tender vehicles, the NEC3 suite of contracts was proposed. “NEC is a family of contracts that facilitates the implementation of sound project management principles and practices as well as carefully defining legal relationships,” explains Ahlschlager. In particular, these contracts provide the novel option of activity-based schedules which specify that payment can only be claimed on completion of activities when the tasks these activities form part of are complete too. This met the need to integrate the many complex systems and the dependencies between these within the project and to account for the many contracts with contractors and subcontractors in a way that encapsulated the entire project. “Although this is a radical departure from contract norms, the client supported Aurecon’s recommendations. During the tender phase, the contractors had to be coached on how to price activities appropriately as this approach was entirely novel to them. The execution phase of the project, however, demonstrated the effectiveness of activity-based contracts in managing risk and cash flow for both the client and contractor.”

“Because appointing the most capable contractors to manage the high risks was seen as a critical element in the success of the project, thorough interviews of the main contractor and most of the sub-contractors were also conducted,” says Ahlschlager. 

Risk management during construction
Vlad Vidas, Aurecon Project Manager during the construction phase, comments: “The best laid plans cannot anticipate everything! Within the first month of the twelve month contract, a fire started in the basement of the building where piles were being driven. The cause of the fire was the unexpected ingress of methane gas, which was released from underground pockets. While this was being resolved, the sequencing of construction works was re-planned and resources reassigned to minimise time and financial loss.”

“A second large unforeseen issue was the discovery of mid-wall beams in the main plant room, which necessitated a change in the designed plant room configuration.  A positive outcome was a solution proposed by the contractor, which not only addressed the required reconfiguration but also optimised the operational layout of the plant.”

The Centrex upgrade was successfully completed in November 2012 after a 12-month construction period, twenty-four days ahead of schedule, on budget and within quality specifications. The project has since received technical acclaim from the client and was cited by the external ISO auditors as the best example of project management practice they had seen to date.

Three key factors stand out in terms of the success of the Centrex upgrade:

  • The client’s trust and empowering of the project manager and his team through all phases of the project
  • The use of innovative NEC3 contract vehicles with activity schedules
  • The alignment of common goals resulting in a spirit of collaborative team work and trust between the client, consultants and the contractor 
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