Building Efficient Data Centers

Facility development for smaller operators varies from what the Big Boys at Apple and Google are able to do, says Shawn Mills of Greenhouse Data. Mills kicks off a series on data center construction for the smaller company and how to leverage the experience of an enterprise more scaled to the small or mid-sized business.

Shawn Mills is a technology entrepreneur, founding member and president of Green House Data. You can find him on Twitter at @tshawnmills.

shawn_mills_tnSHAWN MILLS
Greenhouse Data

Development projects from large companies like Google or Facebook are great learning opportunities, but as impressive as their innovation may be, they aren’t always practical lessons for small- and medium-sized operators. When it comes to energy efficiency, we don’t all have the luxury of building our data centers on the edge of the Arctic Circle or in areas with plenty of geothermal or hydroelectric power, but that doesn’t mean building a super-energy-efficient facility is only wishful thinking—low PUEs are juicy fruit for those who are willing to make the effort.

The recent series here on Data Center Knowledge describing a Compass Data Center build is another angle. Compass is doing some really interesting things with modular design and data center builds, but as a company that designs and builds data centers as their core business, they face different challenges than operators do. When we make the decision to expand, we must sort out many issues that may not be part of our daily routine, while tackling raising capital and other growing pains.

This series will follow the development of a new Green House Data facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming, tracing it from our initial decision to expand through site selection, business grants and incentives, the design process, and finally, wrapping up with ground breaking and construction. I hope other companies of our size come away with new insight into the balancing act of building a highly efficient facility with limited experience and access to resources.

When is a New Facility Necessary?

Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time for a new facility, like you’re out of room, or an intense storm tossed a tree through your white space. We currently only have about 5 percent of our cabinet space remaining in our Cheyenne location, yet the decision to expand was made about a year ago, when we looked at market trends and analyzed the projected growth of our current customer base.

Demand for Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), disaster recovery and colocation services is growing, but it’s worth taking the time to carry projections over 12-24 months in order to time expansion plans appropriately. Nobody wants a shiny new building with thousands of empty square feet.

Where to Build?

The next step was selecting a site for the new facility. We checked out San Jose, CA; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; as well as Iowa and Nebraska. In our case, the location that made the most sense was growing our own data center footprint in Wyoming as we already had a close working relationship with the state, who is making a huge effort to grow the data center industry within its borders. Our business model is designed around many of the values available in Wyoming, such as abundant wind energy, cool and dry climate, the intersection of broadband fiber lines and solid business incentives.

The lynchpin was the combination of low power costs and high potential for free cooling, which can combine to a low PUE of about 1.15 for some serious energy savings. With only 5 – 10 percent of each watt going to cooling, the environmental factor drove us to continue our growth in Wyoming alongside other companies like Microsoft and The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Our demand projections came in handy during the actual site selection. Based on our year-over-year growth, we settled on a data center three times the size of our current facility. That gives us 15,000 sq. ft. of actual white space, plus room for offices, electrical, storage, maintenance rooms, loading docks, security entrances, and all the other supporting elements that keep data centers running smoothly.

We gave ourselves an additional 20,000 sq. ft. for the support space. We shopped around Cheyenne for possible sites and decided building next to our current facility made the most sense because of the existing telecom and power infrastructure. There’s an incredible amount of IT/telecom specific investment in our current building, such as 100 gigabit circuits and multiple carriers already installed. Because we would have to duplicate this infrastructure if we moved further away, it ultimately came down to current assets being more valuable than finding a different location that would play nice with our building plans.

Relieving Budgetary Pressure

Anyone who has started planning a new facility knows the sheer scale and cost of the project can be enough to keep you up some nights. One easy way to lighten some of that load is to track down state and local incentives.

Over 15 states currently offer incentives specific to data centers and we spoke to several of them. For example, data center operators can receive tax exemptions on equipment, property tax, free land, or development grants. Choosing the package that is right for you is critical and they can be very complicated.

Ultimately, the Wyoming Business Council (Wyoming’s economic development agency) proved to us the importance of a business partner in the grant process. Grants can take a long time to come through, but while this wheel is turning, economic development agencies can help introduce you to potential clients and other resources. In our case, the Wyoming Business Council acted as a true partner and cemented our decision to stay in put.

In Wyoming, a cost reduction grant program can cover electrical and broadband costs if data centers meet redundancy requirements and invests in capital infrastructure and employees. For many state and local governments, data centers are a unique investment because the risk of relocation is so low.

While you’re applying for grants, you can start to nail down the details of your new facility. Our application to the Wyoming Business Council included:

  • business plan
  • Contingency and Development Agreement
  • anticipated utility costs
  • project description
  • description of public benefit
  • project goals
  • timeline
  • Tier designation of the facility
  • site information (location, current use, necessary infrastructure, zoning designation, environmental concerns)
  • business information and history
  • job retention and creation chart
  • three year utility cost budget

Many of these details can be based on your current usage, especially if you are building in the same city or country as an existing facility. If this is a new area or your first data center, research commercial utility costs and check public records for site information. As a business owner, you probably already know most of the other information.

Choosing Development Partners

In our next post, we describe how we picked our development partners and how they really helped simplify the process (and let me catch up on some sleep). Stay tuned!

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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