The data center building boom has created backlogs for the large generators that provide emergency power, with some facility operators reporting lengthy delays on new units of the most popular models.
"Generator lead time for a nice 2 megawatt diesel engine is now up to a year for one generator," Josh Snowhorn of Terremark said in a panel at the NANOG conference earlier this year. "So we can build all the raised floor we want, and then sit around and wait six months for a generator."
Executives at 365 Main, which recently bought two data centers to expand its network, also reports backlogs of up to a year for 2 megawatt generators, which are favored for use in high-availability data centers. The size of some of the newer server farms is adding to the challenge. "Some of the newer Microsoft and Yahoo data centers can use up to 20 or 30 generators," said Chris Dolan, president of 365 Main, when we spoke with him earlier this summer. "We'll have 20 generators for the Phoenix facility. We were fairly strategic and ordered ahead. This will be a big issue for the next wave of data center builds."
That reality was reflected in a comment in today's New York Times by Margie Backhaus, chief business officer at Equinix. "Getting generators today is the No. 1 thing that will drive your construction schedules," said Backhaus. Equinix is building new projects in Chicago, New York and Northern Virginia.
Companies like Equinix and 365 Main with active data center expansion programs have the benefit of established relationships with generator makers, and presumably are less likely to get bogged down with lengthy project delays. We don't imagine that Microsoft or Google are having trouble obtaining generators.
But generator backlogs may be a much bigger issue for companies just entering the data center industry. It may be a particular challenge for build-to-suit projects planning phased build-outs based on tenant commitments, who are less likely to order generators far ahead of time while they're uncertain whether they'll need them.
We placed inquiries with Caterpillar and Cummins, two of the leading generator manufacturers, seeking comment on lead times for generator orders, particularly for 2 megawatt units. Neither company has responded. On Sept. 5 Caterpillar said it would raise generator prices by 5 to 7 percent, while Cummins followed suit Sept. 25 with a 10 percent price hike.
Buying used generators is an option, and a Google search for 2000 kw generator identifies several web sites marketing "pre-owned" Cummins and Caterpillar units. Smaller generators sometimes are more available than the 2 megawatt. But given the focus on premium specs for power infrastructure, data center builders may be wary of relying on used generators or units that are smaller than those found at competing providers.
UPDATE: Commenters in the discussion over at Slashdot note that one factor in the backlog is demand for generators from the U.S. military, which is coping with an unstable power grid in Iraq.