ORLANDO, Fla. - The data center industry isn't serious enough about testing the performance and safety of new facilities, according to Chris Crosby, who says this practice will lead to problems unless it is addressed.
Crosby, the CEO of Compass Datacenters, is an ardent advocate of the importance of commissioning, the thorough testing of mission-critical systems in new data centers. In a presentation Tuesday at Data Center World, Crosby called on service providers to commit to Level 5 commissioning of new data centers, which involves integrated testing of all mission-critical systems.
"It's been shocking to me how much our industry has been shirking on commissioning," said Crosby. "It has real risks for the operation of the building, as well as safety."
Crosby was also critical of the practice of phased expansions of data center electrical infrastructure, saying this approach creates additional risk by introducing scenarios that cannot be tested during commissioning.
"Some companies are saying 'we've pre-designed the data center, and can add UPS capacity later,'" said Crosby. "If you haven't tested it at full load, you're kidding yourself."
The value of commissioning
Commissioning is a quality assurance process in which a facility is thoroughly tested, preferably by an independent specialist. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) defines commissioning as “verifying and documenting that the facility and all of its systems and assemblies are planned, designed, installed, tested, operated and maintained to meet the needs of the owner.”
In his presentation at Data Center World, Crosby outlined the various levels of commissioning a data center.
"Commissioning is the only time you get to test the equipment as its supposed to work," said Crosby. "As the CEO, that's the one thing that allows me to sleep at night. I know the site performs. Data centers very rarely get you kudos, but they can get you canned."
Crosby said Level 5 commissioning is crucial in affirming that the data center will operate reliably and safely, but many providers forego this level of testing. "Level 4 is where a lot of people are stopping nowadays," he said.
Before founding Compass, Crosby was an executive for many years at Digital Realty Trust when it pioneered the wholesale data center model. He has become a strong advocate of standards, including Tier certification that includes data center construction as well as design. That emphasis on independent review of data center quality extends to commissioning.
Safety and capacity expansion
Crosby says the commissioning issue goes deeper than performance and reliability. He says it's a safety issue.
"The concept of modular expansion has created an inordinate amount of risk," he said. "Don't fall into the phased-build model of installing extra capacity on live stuff. If you don't test and then add something later, you increase the risk of an arc flash exponentially."
An arc flash is an electrical explosion that generates intense heat that can reach 35,000 F, which can damage and even melt electrical equipment. Arc flash incidents also represent a significant threat to worker safety.
A commissioning specialist who wished to remain anonymous said such safety concerns can be addressed by including commissioning agents in the design process, a practice that's common in data center projects for large enterprises, but less so for service providers.
Reducing arc flash hazards has been a growing priority for data center power vendors and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which in 2012 introduced new regulations designed to limit the scenarios in which technicians are working with energized equipment.
According to Crosby, data center designs incorporating phased expansion -- often through the addition of modular UPS infrastructure -- can create risky scenarios in which capacity is added to operational facilities. He said this is a particular challenge with larger facilities with a unified power infrastructure.
"I firmly believe that we are going to have an issue as an industry with arc flash," said Crosby. "We don't do a good enough job explaining the risks of live work."
One way to manage these risks would be to lease equipment for the commissioning process, so that a provider could test a facility at full projected load without laying out the capital to purchase UPS units and generators.
"I get that these are hard decisions," said Crosby. "But this is dangerous stuff."
Audience members noted that this risk can also be addressed through designs that break larger facilities into multiple chunks with independent power systems. Crosby acknowledged this point, and said more data centers need to consider this in the design process.
"You've got to build out separate infrastructure systems, from the transformer all the way through," he said.
This is the approach Compass has taken with its data center design, which features facilities sized at 1 to 1.5 megawatts, with expansion available through additional buildings.