Unlocking Efficiency: The Advantages of Multi-Story Data Centers

Expect to see a rise in multi-story data centers thanks to their potential to save money and enhance sustainability.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology Analyst

April 8, 2024

4 Min Read
data center with multiple levels

If you picture a data center in your mind, you probably conjure up an image of a short building sprawling across a wide footprint — something that looks kind of like a big box store.

But going forward, more and more data centers may look quite different. They'll come in the form of multi-story facilities, which have the potential to save costs and improve sustainability. At the same time, however, multi-story data centers pose some unique challenges, making them a tough sell for certain use cases.

What Is a Multi-story Data Center?

A multi-story data center is exactly that: a data center with multiple stories, or floors.

Multi-story data centers are notable because traditionally, almost all data centers have been single-story buildings. The only common exceptions are data centers located in dense urban areas, where businesses might occasionally install servers on multiple levels due to very tight space limitations. In almost all other cases, data centers have been housed in single-level facilities.

Two Benefits That Explain the Rise of Multi-story Data Centers

There are two main reasons for building a data center with multiple stories.

One is to save money on land. On average, land costs in the United States have increased by about 27% since 2020 — and much more in fast-growing regions where businesses are keen to place new data centers to help serve increasing populations. As a result, the cost of acquiring the real estate necessary to build a data center has risen substantially.

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In this environment, fitting more server floor room space on the same footprint of land by building multiple stories provides an obvious financial benefit.

The second key benefit that multi-story data centers can potentially offer is enhanced sustainability. In addition to reducing the amount of natural land that is lost to development, multi-level facilities can potentially improve cooling system efficiency by reducing the ratio between server room space and building surface exposed to direct sunlight.

In short, taller data centers can save money while also helping businesses achieve their sustainability goals.

The Challenges of Multi-story Data Centers

On the other hand, multi-story data centers present some special challenges.

The biggest is building design requirements. Most data centers rely on special floor designs to provide space below servers for circulating cool air and running cables. Data center floors also need to be capable of supporting the considerable weight of IT equipment. Both factors mean that multi-story construction techniques that suffice for standard office buildings may not work for data centers.

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Along similar lines, architects who work on multi-level data centers must ensure that the facilities' power and HVAC systems are properly balanced across each story — ideally without bloating costs to the point that the money saved on land acquisition is outweighed by higher construction costs.

The need for elevators capable of moving large server racks between stories is a third factor that can make it challenging to design a cost-effective multi-story data center.

These challenges are all solvable, but only with a combination of architectural creativity and money.

When — and When Not — to Invest in a Multi-story Data Center

Deciding if a multi-story data center makes sense for your business boils down to whether the benefits of a multi-story data center outweigh the cost of building such a facility.

To a large extent, that calculus will hinge on where the data center is located. If you're building a facility in a place where land is relatively cheap, and/or where renewable energy is easy to source, you stand to gain less on either a financial or sustainability front by investing in a multi-story data center.

But expect to see more multi-story facilities in places where development is already relatively dense, leading to high land costs, as well as in situations where eking every efficiency out of data center operations is a business priority. It's unlikely that the majority of data centers will include more than one level anytime soon, but we could begin to see more such facilities outside of the ultra-dense urban centers where they were traditionally found.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology Analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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