It’s All About the Engineering

Data centers are often the unsung hero behind many successful organisations. They stoically provide the robust and reliable mission critical infrastructure which is essential for continuous service delivery. As an industry, we quite rightly work hard to maximise uptime and minimise downtime. But whilst the temptation might be to make these important decisions purely at a theoretical level or to be influenced by a ‘tick box’ approach to specification or selection, the real solution is to dig a little deeper into the engineering and focus on the lessons that can be learned from the practical reality of running a data hall.

Keep it simple stupid…

It’s understandable that new technology and approaches might appear attractive, however experience shows us that over complicated design and specification can often increase the possibility of downtime. Why? Because unnecessarily complex systems can be harder to maintain and to fix in the face of failure. 75% of all downtime in the data center is as a result of human error so the old adage ‘Keep it Simple Stupid’ is extremely pertinent. If a system is easier to operate it is more likely to be reliable.

Engineers that leverage what they have learned in the past when they design, commission and operate a data center are more able to avoid what has failed and repeat what has worked. And a data center that is both operational and experience-led is able to reinvest that knowledge in the design and construction of every hall.

For example, experience tells us that the most effective way to manage risk of any kind is to avoid a single point of failure wherever possible so that individual, relatively small problems can be contained at a local level, not escalated into a major problem across the entire facility. Not all single points of failure are that obvious. For example, if you use a building management system (BMS) for remote enable/disable of critical equipment, a simple software failure could turn off perfectly healthy pieces of equipment with subsequent loss of services to the tenant. As a result, good engineering practice suggests that it’s best to keep it simple. And test for every eventuality that you can before a client takes occupancy of the space. Of course, the simpler the solution, the more likely it will be that you will be able to test for every possible scenario during fully loaded integrated systems tests (ISTs).

Delivering realistic Service Level Agreements (SLAs)

In the same way, an engineering-led approach to SLAs should mean that they are practical, feasible and achievable. Think of SLAs as a numerical function of the engineering, not a negotiating element of the contract. Projections should not be unrealistic and cutting edge technology should not be specified simply to impress. Engineers are ultimately judged on what they achieve and failure to hit SLAs only results in operational targets not being met and penalty clauses being invoked. It is imperative that downtime or meantime between failures (MTBT) is fully understood by clients. The impact that design and commissioning decisions can have on SLAs and operational efficiencies must be taken on board.

For example, large static transfer switches might be stipulated as the best way to protect against power failure and guarantee resilience but it’s the responsibility of the engineering team advising the client to explain that the single point of failure is actually the single power supply cables out of the switch and the switch itself. The best way to deliver full resilience is to double the cables, not focus on the switch.

Similarly, the desire to reduce the cost and time to install pipework might be regarded as the best way to achieve an earlier completion date but whilst plastic pipes might be cost effective, they are also more prone to cracking which could ultimately disrupt the supply of water for the cooling system. Experience shows that plastic pipes are not worth the risk but it’s on the engineering team to explain why it’s worth the extra time and money to stick with heavy weight steel pipes in most circumstances.

The Holy Trinity

Engineers clearly need to be more transparent about the pros and cons of different systems, approaches and accreditations. They need to listen to what the client wants and then explain and justify their recommendations, even if that means suggesting an alternative course of action if that is in the client’s best interest. They should regard an SLA as a promise to deliver and be prepared to renegotiate an SLA if it is not technically or operationally viable.

Engineers that have the experience to harness the data center holy trinity of design, commissioning and operation are in a much stronger position to reduce any potential for infrastructural weakness or unnecessary complexity or complications that could hinder resilience or efficiency.

Do the engineers supporting your data center have the knowledge and expertise to harness the holy trinity?

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