Picking the Right Partner: Facility Development for Smaller Operators

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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

I am writing a series of posts about developing a new facility as a small- or medium-sized data center company, in an effort to inspire other companies of our size, who don’t have the same resources as large operators like Amazon, or companies who build data centers as their core business.

First things first: yes, you can build a brand new, highly energy efficient facility even as a small company. In my last article, I covered how to decide when a new facility is in the cards, locating possible building sites, and securing incentives so your wallet takes less of a hit. This week, let’s take a look at choosing development and design partners. You may want to design and build your facility yourself, but there are many advantages to working with partners so you can stay focused on your customers while still meeting the goals for your new facility.

Do You Need a Development Partner?

As a small- or medium-sized data center company, a development partner can take a lot of the headaches out of your new build. Organizations dedicated to designing and building data centers will jump at the chance to work with you, provided you have something to bring to the table (namely, tenants, and/or incentives). These companies can help you:

  • Avoid time sinks of non-growing your company tasks
  • Address unforeseen obstacles in the build process
  • Stay committed to your daily activities of keeping customers happy
  • Raise capital investment or soften capital pressures
  • Help guide the designers, construction managers, subcontractors, etc.

In our previous post, we mentioned that applying for data center incentives could be a good way to start getting your project details hammered out. At Green House Data, as we started to flesh out our plans and applied for a managed data center cost reduction grant, we began to think how to approach our new facility build (in Cheyenne, WY). We believe our service level helps us stand out from the pack, so we wanted to remain focused on serving our customer base with data center operations and management, rather than acting as landlords and or running around trying to raise capital.

For our new facility, our development partners, 1547 Critical Systems Realty, will own the building and lease it back to us on a wholesale basis, making Green House Data more of a data center services operator and service provider rather than a data center owner and landlord. Potential partners should be chosen for the reason we chose 1547: they understood our vision of a highly energy efficient facility that’s cost effective—for us and especially our customers—while maximizing white space.

Our current Cheyenne data center was a retrofitted building, where we picked up some sledgehammers and handled a lot of the design and even some minor construction internally. We learned a ton, but expert facilities partners can help big projects go much more smoothly. After all, we tell our clients to leave the infrastructure management to our expert techs—why should we put our future at risk by trying to stretch beyond our own strengths?

In-House vs. Outsourced Building Design

Designers help you think about the impacts of every decision, avoiding pitfalls that you might not avoid yourself, like investing in too much electrical infrastructure, for instance. You may have a solid internal team already. Large companies might have designers on staff, and small companies might take one look at the quotes coming in and decide they can handle it themselves. After all, operators deal with equipment day in and day out—they can probably figure out a new building, right?

We thought the same thing, but after talking with our design consultants, Deerns America, for a couple weeks we found out how helpful they can be. We wanted to put the generators for the new building wherever they needed the least amount of effort. Our designers were quick to point out how they would affect sound levels and vibration inside the white space itself. Generators are just one of many things to keep in mind when designing a new facility: “How tall are the walls?” “How big are the bays?” “What kind of flooring do you put in?” The design consultant is critical to bring the whole team and pieces together.

We choose Deerns America for their vision of staying focused on flexibility, low cost, high reliability and energy efficiency. Many of these attributes can be at odds with one another unless you have design consultants who will keep hammering it out with you. Designers give extremely important insights into facility builds, but only you know about the needs of your customers and employees (and of course just how much of an investment is bearable or realistic). Usually, it’s a math problem, not an unsolvable problem, and good designers will want to find the sweet spot between budget realities and facility requirements.

Unforeseen Obstacles

Another example of how our designers pulled us out of the deep end was with the build site itself. We had our eye on a site, and we thought we knew the space the building required. We had estimated cooling, generator, parking, and other exterior space requirements based on our existing facility, so we were sure our potential site had more than enough space for a 35,000-square-foot facility.

What we didn’t realize was that the new building was big enough to require a water storage tank and runoff area. Thankfully, we got guidance from Deerns before going through with the purchase. Without an experienced design partner, we would not have known that we needed to increase the size of the plot.

Ultimately, every company has to decide for itself if development and design partners are worth the expense. Speaking from experience, we can say we are glad we had someone to consult with prior to our land purchase. That retention pond could have been too tight of a squeeze, or we might have been forced to downsize the facility plans. At the very least, take some meetings and see what kind of ideas and synergy you find with developers and designers. They can save you time and money in the end.

Facing the Code Officials

In our next installment, we’ll cover working with your design partners to balance your infrastructure requirements with site and building code constraints.

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