Cary Frame is President and founder of Polargy, a provider of hot- and cold-aisle containment solutions.
Who owns containment? No one. This is the problem.
Hot- and cold-aisle containment is a data center best practice that is experiencing hyper-growth in adoption because of its large impact on energy efficiency and operating cost savings. Interestingly, there is still no clear ownership of containment within the enterprise, among industry trades or between manufacturers.
We work on the leading edge of growth in data center containment by focusing on product innovation and enabling fast and precise implementation. We offer this perspective on containment ownership based on our observations from over five years in the containment market.
In our experience, what drives ambiguity around containment ownership is that it exists along the boundaries of job scope for multiple traditional players within data center white space. It also represents a more customized solution set than much of the industry is accustomed to.
Different Perspectives on Containment
On the user side, containment physically touches data center server racks, which are the responsibility of IT or IT Operations management within the enterprise, but it significantly impacts air conditioning performance, which is typically under the purview of facilities management. In addition, some enterprises have corporate energy managers who want or need to participate in the discussion. On the supply side, no single manufacturer type has claimed the category and no trade (mechanical, electrical, etc.) has taken a lead role. Because no one has stepped into full ownership of containment, up to five separate groups inside and outside the data center currently get involved.
Within the enterprise, we see retrofit projects managed by data center operations as often as by facilities. However, we rarely see IT responsible for driving decisions, and though we find energy managers at the table, they almost never drive a project, but rather consult on ROI. When it comes to commissioning containment, all three constituents have strong stakes in the upgraded operating environment.
What's the Cold Aisle Containment Strategy?
As part of the standard engagement process we request that all three groups participate in outcome targets and commissioning planning. The key question these groups must agree on is what the new cold aisle temperature will be. Typically, IT people seek cold aisle temperatures in the mid-60s, data center operations people tend to favor temperatures in the low-70s, and facilities people prefer to run near the ASHRAE limit of 80.7°F. Besides these three operational groups, trades and manufacturers also suffer containment ownership ambiguity.
As a lead containment contactor, we routinely trains and subcontracts a variety of firms from other trades to install containment. Our solutions have been installed by low voltage, flooring, interior, mechanical, and electrical contractors. Scholes Electrical and Mechanical in New Jersey has both electrical and low voltage groups, and Polargy has done projects with both groups for the same client. No particular contractor type has emerged as the one best suited to initiate and own containment projects.
“At CRB, we’ve seen a growing number of owners procure containment from containment companies like Polargy, but also from rack makers like Chatsworth,” reports Daniel Bodenski, Director of Mission Critical Services at CRB. “Likewise, in our mission critical project work, we’ve seen a variety of subcontractors install containment, including electricians, flooring contractors, and again the containment vendors themselves. No single group appears to be claiming full ownership yet."
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Additionally, we have even seen contractors avoiding containment opportunities. In Chicago, the engineering design house Environmental Systems Design attempted to bid a containment project to four low-voltage contractors, but none of them responded because they didn’t know what they were getting into. In Phoenix, a prominent mechanical contractor walked away from containment opportunities because they felt containment wasn’t “in their wheelhouse.”
The case of mechanical contractors is particularly curious because three things should give the mechanical trade an advantage in containment:
1) They’re already responsible for air flow supply in the data center.
2) They’re already doing routine maintenance on CRAC units, so they have regular access to customers they could sell containment to.
3) They already have the mechanical skills necessary to install containment.
Yet, we haven’t even seen mechanical get traction with containment. Lack of clear ownership for containment means mechanical and other trades lose out on significant opportunities due to nothing more than lack of familiarity.
Among manufacturers, containment is dispersed among different types, from pure-play companies solely focused on containment to resellers and divisions within large diversified corporations. Containment is largely custom-designed to unique site conditions and varying rack sizes and layouts. As rack, low voltage and flooring manufacturers encroach on the containment market they are being forced to overcome the customization barrier.
Lack of Ownership is a Barrier
Lack of clear and consistent ownership for containment among facilities management, trades, and manufacturers is clearly restricting containment-related decisions and implementations today. Containment is moving up the adoption curve, but the market will continue to see a variety of players at the table until market norms are established.
While these different constituent groups remain involved in containment to some degree, communication about business outcomes and implementation is paramount. Until there is better clarity vis-a-vis ownership of containment, decision authority will remain dispersed and responsibility will be shared, necessitating communication and coordination among more parties than necessary.
According to Rich Garrison, Senior Principal at Alfa Tech, “Because containment is intended to control airflow by separating hot and cold air, containment solutions are a fundamental part of the Mechanical solution. On the other hand, because it can be considered a wall or partition and often has an aesthetic component, the Architects claim ownership. To further complicate it, containment solutions are often positioned as accessories to rack solutions and can be considered part of the IT infrastructure. Ownership ambiguity extends to the trades as well. We see General Contractors, Mechanical, Electrical and Low Voltage sub-contractors all doing containment installation.”
In the current environment, while ownership remains ambiguous, we see MEP consulting engineers as the ideal containment owner from a design perspective due to their responsibility for air flow controls and monitoring. On the implementation side, pure-play containment manufacturers, who double as containment contractors, will remain best-suited to manage installation. Their advantage comes from superior product knowledge and deep and varied experience as the “go-to guy” during the formative phase of the containment market.
We anticipate this will remain the situation in this market for the next two to four years, while data center containment ownership gets sorted out. Clear ownership of containment will facilitate even faster adoption of cutting edge containment solutions and lead to even greater data center efficiency.
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