At the core of many modern business operations are data centre facilities used to house the computer systems and associated components, such as telecommunications and storage systems, which run applications that handle core business and operational data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Accordingly, data centres should achieve uncompromising levels of performance. The impact of catastrophes such as power outages and security breaches at these centres can have a significant effect on business operations – compromising crucial business information, with severe consequences.
“Data centres are unlike any other buildings. They require unprecedented amounts of heating and cooling; their structures need protection against ‘worst-case’ events such as terrorism and earthquakes; and they require not only back-up power, but uninterrupted power supply at all times,” says Peter Greaves, Aurecon’s Competency Leader, Building Services.
In this article, Greaves explores some of the unique challenges inherent in data centres design as well as the need for investors to partner with experienced consultants when it comes to investing in this type of infrastructure.
Modular design reigns supreme
“Data centres of the 21st century need to be scalable,” says Greaves.
Modular solutions which allow for incremental expansion are a key requirement. In this regard, it is critical that consultants understand the current and future needs of the businesses they design for. This allows for ‘future-proofed’ design.
“Companies don’t want to build over-sized facilities and then fill them up gradually. They want the design of their facilities to meet their current needs, but also cater for future expansion by providing the option to build on to the facility as needed and in a way which makes practical and financial sense.”
Greening date centre performance
In addition to smarter design solutions, Greaves also stresses the need for improving performance.
“Data centres are significant users of energy and are estimated to consume some 2% of the world’s energy. Today’s data centre owners are placing a greater emphasis on the performance and even official rating of their centres,” he explains.
In Australia, the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) Energy for Data Centres rating tool has recently been developed by the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage, in collaboration with the Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and Greaves believes that it’s likely other countries will follow suite.
“This rating tool allows data centre owners and operators to assess the energy performance of their facilities, as well as understand how to invest in cost-effective energy saving initiatives that will reduce unnecessary energy use and save money,” explains Greaves.
“Installing the latest technology can go a long way toward improving effectiveness, but it’s important that the technology function in conjunction with passive design measures such as the use of free cooling. In Cape Town and Tshwane, for instance, it’s possible to utilise cool air at night to pass through the conditioning systems and cool the plant, whereas in Tshwane, it’s possible to exploit ground-source cooling. In countries like Scandinavia, technologists are digging data centres into the ground or housing them in caves to ensure efficient cooling.”
A demand for re-lifing
In addition to efficiency, there is also a huge drive to address what the industry terms ‘under-designed centres’ which require their owner to expand capacity.
“This involves upgrading system reliability, including increasing power generation, security and enhanced structural requirements such as additional access control.
Aurecon has a very unique process for undertaking these kinds of upgrades.
Called an outline implementation plan, this involves the use of a systematic assessment tool which governs a comprehensive, systematic upgrade process.
“The result is peace-of-mind for owners that an upgrade has addressed all angles of performance,” says Greaves.
Achieving absolute reliability
He adds that, in today’s terms, performance has come to mean ‘zero down-time’.
“It takes virtually ‘fail-proof’ design to achieve this. In this regard, an excellent knowledge of backup technologies is key. This includes ensuring any backup technology is ‘fully redundant’, meaning that if it fails, there is an alternate source of uninterrupted power supply to back it up.”
Data centres in Africa
In Africa, specifically, the installation of two major data cables on the east and west coast is enabling faster technologies and will see the increasing need for high-spec data centres to support this growth.
Greaves, who is endeavouring to apply the lessons learnt around best practice in data centre design in Asia and globally to local shores, concludes by saying that owners considering investment in this type of infrastructure should carefully consider the consultants they choose to partner with.
“Experience is key. Aurecon has gleaned vital experience on some of the largest data centres worldwide. Coupled to this, our local engineers have gained an intimate knowledge of operating conditions throughout Africa on projects such as the data centre for the Meerkat array, which is the pre-cursor array for the Square Kilometer Array, with internal processes such as peer reviews of the design of our centres ensuring we add considerable value to our clients’ projects. Our team of over 500 building specialists in over 20 countries works together to deliver smart, achievable solutions which they tailor to meet client-specific requirements.”