A Data Center – It’s All About the Details

Recently, GBA Builders teamed up with GBA to complete 1623 Farnam – an expansion of the cutting-edge data center in Omaha, Nebraska. Data centers provide a centralized location where an organization can store, process, and disassemble data. These centers are highly secured and must be upgraded and renovated without any interruptions to the current service (making them mission critical). When designing and constructing a data center project, success is a result of the team’s ability to address minute details – however challenging they may be.

A colleague and I were discussing data center design and the challenges to meeting a specific objective. While discussing solutions, he made a profound observation – ‘in designing, constructing, and operating a data center, it’s all about the details’.

It has become almost second nature for those of us who have worked in the data center design, construction, and operations side, to default to this guiding principle. Of those details, there are a few that consistently pose difficulties to the teams involved with project delivery and execution.

Data Center Detail Challenges

Design Capacity – Determining the electrical and mechanical design capacity for the data center. I recall the challenges to setting those limits when I first worked in operations. The advice I received was, regardless of the capacity projection, it would probably be wrong. Given the varying load profiles of IT equipment and the continuous refresh/updates to rack mounted equipment, today’s data center is likely to be designed for expandability.

Integrating Monitoring – Power and cooling monitoring should be a fundamental component of the design. ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is a phrase that captures the objective. Deployment of power monitoring should consider redundant power paths, if they are included in the design. Understanding the electrical load is important to forecasting potential expansion in order to meet the business services growth, as well as to understand the impact of fail over scenarios. It is vital in information collection, as are normal state load measurements.

Coordinate Electrical and Mechanical – Ensuring the electrical power is installed and meets the mechanical cooling equipment operational objective. For example, where a redundant cooling unit is installed, should the electrical power be provided from a separate power panel? The loss of power to a single power panel suppling both the primary and redundant number of cooling units, may result in the loss of all cooling, until power can be restored.

Controls Availability – Understanding the impact to a loss of equipment controls. In the case of ducted cooling, will the loss of control to variable air volume (VAV) dampers result in their closure and subsequent loss of essential cooling air to equipment? Some should consider if redundant controls are warranted.

Labeling– Establishing a unique and logical identification for each piece of equipment. This includes the identification of electrical and mechanical equipment during the design phase. Setting a labeling scheme early in the project will provide a smoother transition into the occupancy phase of the project. Placing permanent placards on equipment, including such items as valve tags, will assist with testing and commissioning, as well as provide on-going benefits to operations. Consider color coding where separate (ex: A-B) electrical and mechanical delivery paths are part of the project.

Acceptance Testing and Commissioning – Including the performance of testing as part of the construction effort is extremely important. This is more than a check list exercise. It should encompass load testing at design capacity. This may be the only time where evaluating the overall capabilities of the systems installed is possible. Integrated systems testing (IST) is sometimes difficult to plan and execute though extremely important in evaluating data center performance, not only when everything is ‘normal’ but when the unplanned events occur. Construction projects in an active data center pose unique challenges to testing and commissioning, but the absence of IST leaves the owner with unknowns that must be addressed during occupancy.

Project Scheduling – The schedule is inviolate! This is a sobering, but often very true, fact in the construction phase. There are several challenges to staying on schedule – equipment lead times and supply chain issues are only two of the obstacles affecting construction. Historically, the delivery date did not change. Finding solutions to these issues can include redirecting subcontractors’ efforts, planning on extended work schedules, and the possibility of reducing the allotted time for contractor startup, acceptance testing and commissioning. Establishing an agreement on managing schedule changes should be part of the early project planning discussions. Curtailing startup, testing and commissioning efforts often fails to identify issues before the transition from construction to occupancy.


These are the more common misses in data center design and construction. Those who make the extra effort to learn from past experiences, are rewarded in the solutions when such common project challenges are faced again.

At GBA Builders and GBA we recognize these challenges and plan early to minimize risk. Our team of experts is ready to help you from project conception to close-out. For more information contact Ed Rafter or Joseph Alvarez.

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