Chris Loeffler, Data Center Applications Manager, Distributed Power Solutions, Eaton Corporation (, says:

What constitutes a good data center design?

Today’s best data centers are designed from the concept stage through the entire service life of the facility, with the following three objectives:

  1. Availability and uptime of the enterprise-related applications that “pay the bills”. Make no mistake: Reliability and availability trump every other consideration in data center design.
  2. Flexibility for future growth. The data center must be able to support the business’ expected growth, usually for a period of 20 to 40 years. That means infrastructure decisions must be made with great forethought and an eye toward both current conditions and possible conditions a couple of decades from now. Also, equipment and support services will likely be “changed out” several times over the data center’s lifecycle, and this must usually be accomplished without disrupting the data center’s work. Therefore, you must build in the flexibility to make those kinds of change while still maintaining services to your users.
  3. Efficiency in power and water usage, and deployment of environmentally-sustainable materials and processes. LEED compliance, at some level, is a requirement for virtually all new data centers and for most data center upgrades. No longer can the enterprise simply assume that uptime is the only thing that matters. Efficient and responsible use of resources is good for the financial bottom line, and necessary for businesses to maintain their good standing in the community.

Why is a data center’s design important for an enterprise’s success?

The huge cost of installing new, and upgrading existing, data centers make the stakes very high. Almost all businesses nowadays rely heavily on data processing and Internet communications. They’re no longer a luxury; they’re a requirement of doing business. Many companies are rendered instantly helpless when a data center suffers a failure. There is often a huge loss in revenue and goodwill when these disasters occur. Bad press can be particularly damaging and result in customers departing, possibly never to return. So the data center must be designed for maximum reliability and extensive flexibility. It must be capable of withstanding multiple system and infrastructure failures while continuing to service customers. Downtime is no longer an option.

What key considerations go into designing a data center?

  1. How large will the facility need to be? Do I want one huge building, or does that place “all my eggs in only one basket”? Do I have enough room to meet my needs over the next 20 or 30 years? How big is too big? Can I operate efficiently in the early years of the data center’s life?
  2. Where do I locate the data center? Is adequate and upgradeable power and water available? Is it wise to locate the center in a downtown area where power disturbances may be frequent? Is a rural location better? Can my staff access the facility in inclement weather? How does my location affect my cost of power and cooling?
  3. Don’t forget security. Can the facility and its staff be protected from intrusion and disruption? What is the backup plan when problems or failures occur? Is there a Plan B and C? Do I invest in one or more disaster recovery facilities to fall back on during a hurricane, earthquake, or other calamity?

What pitfalls can designers and builders typically fall into?

The biggest pitfall is not being able to predict the future. No one can do that, of course, but experienced engineers and consultants can provide invaluable advice, based on their real-world knowledge. Don’t forget to set up a Plan B and Plan C to address unexpectedly rapid growth, or the need for disaster recovery provisions.

In addition, avoid the temptation to invest in technologies and processes that do not show a clear return on investment for your business. Very expensive projects are too often undertaken without a clear view of when (or if) they will pay for themselves. Remember that even though a data center is a nerd’s paradise, it’s still a functioning business, and the financials must make sense. Every part of the data center must have a defined goal and a defined ROI. The data center manager will typically be measured on both meeting the company’s performance and reliability goals and on the project’s time to payback.

What advice can you give to a company that is looking at several different design/building companies?

Give at least three companies a chance to present. Ask every question that comes to mind, even the obvious ones, and look for clear answers based on the firm’s real-world experience. This is not the time to take a chance on a new designer, engineering firm or architect, so don’t risk your multi-million dollar data center on anyone who hasn’t proven themselves. Question them specifically on how their solution is more reliable, more flexible, and more efficient than the alternatives. Don’t accept vague answers. They should be able to provide tangible evidence of how their recommendations will benefit you. Look for something you can hold in your hand, or better, place in your wallet. Don’t put your faith in promises. Demand to see results.