Designing a New Type of Data Center

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Scott Kuehn is a partner of H+L Architecture, an architecture, landscape, and interior design firm of 80+ staff with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. The firm specializes in planning and design for science, technology, healthcare, and education projects.

SCOTT KUEHN
H+L Architecture

When H+L Architecture was awarded the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) the project’s designers had to put aside many established data center design standards and take a new look at the way a data center could be conceived to create a different kind of 21st century facility. In addition to H+L Architecture, the project team is rounded out by Saunders Construction, California Data Center Design Group, The RMH Group, Rumsey Engineers, and Martin/Martin Consulting Engineers.

Critical Research Facility

With the topic of global climate change being more intensely debated than ever, the new facility couldn’t come at a better time. NWSC will be used to carry out extended, detailed studies of the weather and climate – extremely critical research for policymakers attempting to deal with global warming.

In addition to unlocking the secrets of weather and climate, the 153,000-square-foot facility will help answer a host of atmospheric and geoscience questions. The data storage component will also house irreplaceable historical climate records. The NWSC will consist of more than 100,000 processors positioned across a carefully controlled 24,000-square-foot area and be home to a supercomputer 20 times more powerful than the computer currently in use at NCAR.

Addressing Project Challenges

The first challenge on the NWSC project was an atypical multi-client team. The project is a partnership among the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, the University of Wyoming, the State of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, the Wyoming Business Council, the National Science Foundation, and Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power.

In addition to coordinating a large number of involved parties, it was essential to provide an extremely long-term solution; the building has to successfully serve the client for a minimum of 40 years. H+L explored every possible option on each issue, from the type of battery to the specific generator to how to best comply with Federal Department of Defense guidelines.

While this data center falls in the small- to medium-size range in terms of typical data center size, its requirements for replacing and updating computer equipment are well above the norm. The center will continuously be utilizing some of the fastest and most advanced computers in the world, unlike many other data centers which less frequently update equipment. On average, every three years the NWSC’s computer equipment will be rotated out, decommissioning the older models.

Planning For Future Growth

Another key issue in NWSC’s design was how to best accommodate potential growth. NCAR conducts an open and competitive procurement process for supercomputing systems, making it difficult to predict what kinds of computers will be utilized. Systems have changed dramatically over the years, and while the upcoming generation of machines is relatively well defined, future technological advances may produce very different systems. Even with the building already under construction designers don’t exactly know what type of computer spaces they’re designing for over the long term, so adaptability to meet future requirements is a must.

The building has two, 12,000-square-foot raised floors. H+L’s master plan is designed to potentially double that. The building is designed to be modular, scalable and upgradable to accommodate any type of future change or growth.

For most data centers, the best and most affordable air-cooled system available at the moment is employed. NWSC will require two state-of-the-art cooling systems, one using air and one using liquid cooling. On this project, as in most data centers, cooling the equipment is an important issue; obviously the faster computers run, the warmer they get.

H+L’s design for the NWSC will also take advantage of wind-generated power available from Wyoming’s Happy Jack wind farm located close to the NWSC site. Wyoming also has a relatively untapped grid, which means large power capacities can be brought online more quickly and as needed by the facility.

Incorporating Green Design: LEED Gold

H+L’s design for the NWSC is very sustainable. The building is designed to meet LEED Gold Certification. The building will have real-time monitoring of energy consumption and Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) at any given moment. PUE is a Green Grid consortium metric and NCAR’s PUE is very efficient due to the use of evaporative cooling which works well in Wyoming’s climate.

NWSC will need less than 200 hours a year of supplemental cooling from back-up chillers; most of the time the building will use evaporative cooling from outdoor air. Employing this method of “free” cooling will enable the NWSC to consume 80 percent less energy on an annual basis than traditional systems. Plans also call for reclaiming waste heat from the data center servers to heat offices and for melting ice on exterior walkways. Significant daylighting throughout the facility will reduce energy consumption related to electric lighting.

Including Needs of Visitors and Scholars in the Design

Most data centers could accurately be described as restricted, muted or no-frills types of facilities. The NWSC will be a different kind of data center—a functional, enjoyable, and comfortable building for both occupants and visitors. NCAR is eager to educate the general public at a Visitors Center with views into the supercomputing room and areas for educational displays off the main entry. Students will have the opportunity to experience 21st-century science and access the world-class faculty and researchers associated with the facility. The NWSC will partner scientists with the University of Wyoming’s students and curriculum as well as 71 member universities, 17 affiliates and 46 international affiliates.

In addition to being visitor-friendly, all employee-occupied spaces will have access to natural daylight and views. A 2,900-square-foot internal courtyard will have synthetic grass, benches, and plants, providing employees a relaxing area away from their workspace with protection from the sometimes unpredictable Wyoming elements.

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