Michael Rane Downey, Global Mission Critical Practice, Gensler

The data center isn’t back of house business anymore. Long gone are the days when company data centers were out of sight and out of the public consciousness, managed by the proverbial wizards behind the curtain. In the tech-fueled economy, data centers not only ensure the delivery of critical service, they make headlines. There’s Facebook’s wind powered data center in Fortune and Intel’s CTO in The Wall Street Journal standing next to the data center that could rival Google and Facebook. The data center has taken its rightful place as a competitive advantage for the company that does it right.

The number of data centers and data traffic will reach an all-time high in 2016. The primary cause of this growth is cloud traffic, which is expected to expand 4.5 fold by 2017. As an architect who specializes in data center design, I’m seeing the same kind of exponential growth in data center construction—TechNavio is predicting an almost 22 percent rate of growth in data centers through 2018.

If you’re building or operating a data center in 2016, in the middle of what can only be described as a fast and furious market, my advice for you is don’t look behind you or beside you. What was done in the past is largely irrelevant. So is what other companies are doing—their budgets and missions are completely different from yours. The secret is to plan your data center with your company’s specific future in mind. That’s what good design is all about.

Here are five tips for turning your data center into your secret weapon in 2016.

Confidential Technology Client, Wilsonville, Ore. Image by Ryan Gobuty

Think about the flow of people, not just power, through your building

Your data center is much more than a container for servers and other equipment. Each day staff, visitors and equipment must flow through the space quickly and efficiently in order for the building to operate at its maximum capacity with minimum expense.

Buildings that achieve this feat contain “technical elegance,” defined as the point where a building accommodates both its technical and human function with maximum efficiency. Various factors from the colors and textures of walls to the changes in height and path of travel layout can create natural wayfinding and organize large spaces on a more human scale.

Technical elegance also has a bottom line benefit. With a recent client, we analyzed the security and the flow of people and equipment through each of the spaces. Through design strategies, we reduced the required number of full-time employees and decreased the total built area by four percent. A few simple choices significantly reduced upfront and operational costs for the client.

Banner Health data center. Image by Nick Merrick

Look beyond Day One

When the power goes on, the costs in capital expenditures give way to maintenance and operational costs. So don’t be too quick to save money on project construction, if those decisions could greatly impact your operational expenses. Question every decision during design and construction for its implications down the road. We typically ask two questions:

  1. If you had a choice, what would you defer to future phases?
  2. How do you anticipate growing within your building?

The architectural layout of your data center will set the blueprint for how efficiently people move, work and process equipment. Allocating a small amount of your budget upfront to design for your long-term operations can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in efficiencies over the life of the building.

Wayfinding and branded visitor tour at Confidential Media Company. Image by David Lauer Photography

Let your growth plan guide your building design

The first thing we ask our data center clients is, “How fast do you plan to grow?”

It doesn’t make sense to finance, build-out and maintain an entire building any earlier than you need to. Keep that money in the bank by planning your building parallel to your company’s growth plan. We recommend creating a master plan for the entire facility and planning each of the anticipated phases during Schematic Design. ALWAYS. With your masterplan in hand early in the design phase, you will have a road map that can be shared with your colleagues, the design team, the general contractor and the authority that has regulatory jurisdiction.

In one city, we were able to get approval of a phased facility expansion that covered Day One through completion of the master plan. This approval ensured that new planning requirements would not be introduced at a later date, reduced the permitting timeframe by weeks per issuance, and allowed us to defer installation of expensive equipment screening until the appropriate phase. A masterplan gives you flexibility for the future, which means more options, less headache and typically less cost.

Negotiate key mission critical drivers during site selection

Most of our clients are not looking to build a single high-tier data center anymore because these facilities tie up too much capital and leave you exposed to the risk of one major event taking down your central command. The current trend is achieving redundancy through a connected network of smaller, less expensive lower-tier data centers.

While your broker and engineers are evaluating the cost of properties, seismic zones, tax incentives, and the like, your architect can help you evaluate project sites to determine which is best suited for your facility. We can negotiate key mission critical building drivers with the authority that has regulatory jurisdiction before you have finalized your site selection process. In many cities, we typically can negotiate:

  • building size
  • building height
  • acoustic requirements
  • building setbacks
  • allowable fuel quantities
  • equipment screening requirements
  • parking and plumbing fixture requirements

Our goal is to make sure that when you select a site, you know that it will accommodate the building you want to build with no significant changes in city requirements after the start of the project. This sort of expertise is part of the value proposition that architects bring to the planning and construction of data centers.

Think of your data center as an ambassador for your brand

The data center now has an external role to play. These days, it’s common for new employees and shareholders to be offered tours of the data center, which means the structure has to be understandable to both an internal and a select external audience. Smart design tactics, such as using color and materials to highlight functional elements, combined with spatial organization and graphic wayfinding, can make a building’s purpose visually apparent and accessible to executives and other employees who choose to visit or tour the facility.

Another thing to remember is that your data center is a neighbor in the city where you choose to build. Communities welcome companies that make an effort to harmonize their data center with the local environs. Materials, landscaping, and the building form all play a part in making these would-be fortresses friendly to their neighborhoods. It’s an insignificant cost in your overall budget that will earn local buy-in and quicker planning approvals. So go for it! The community will gain a building they are happy to live with, and you will gain a surprising new brand ambassador.

2016 will be a banner year for the adoption of technology. In addition to the ever-growing Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and robotics will start to become a reality of daily life. That’s going to mean exponential growth for tech companies, who will rely on their data centers more than ever. By the end of 2016, critical facilities will be an organization’s prime indicator of competitive advantage. Companies who embrace design will be rewarded with a data center that is not only secure and functional, but can integrate into the community, represent the brand and protect precious time and money.