The Facility Technologist: Information Technology Spaces – Planning For Special Needs

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the March 2004 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

In recent years, information technology has caused a fundamental change in the way businesses operate. So many basic business processes now operate on IT that this infrastructure component has become mission critical for most organizations. Just a decade ago, most organizations could function quite well with only lights, phones, and a fax machines, but those days are long gone. In this IT-centric world, failures of this kind can cripple a business faster and more effectively than any other single event. In this two part article, readers will discover ways to alleviate the most significant threats from their mission critical IT spaces.

Unfortunately, many space planners and architects can be rather traditional in their thinking. As a result, they fail to allocate the appropriate money, space, or special systems for truly mission critical IT. When this occurs, IT facilities may be left under protected, thus increasing the risk to those that rely on them. In reality, there is far more at risk here than simply money. Under these conditions, the entire future of an organization can be put on the line.

More than half the businesses that experience a major catastrophe with significant data loss are out of business within two years. Unlike the interruption of phone, electrical, or other systems, damage to the technology environment is not remedied by a simple replacement of equipment. It can take weeks or months to recover from a catastrophic IT event, and lost data often cannot be recovered-ever. This all means lost money for the organization, and, to some individuals, ruined careers.

Generally, IT spaces are subject to tight budgets and lack of executive support. It is unrealistic to expect to get everything requested. Instead, facility professionals should get what they can and make sure the organization is aware of the risks it is taking if IT is not given the attention it deserves.

Facility executives need to know the basics of designing and maintaining the spaces devoted to important technological infrastructure. Do not rely on the IT department to protect its systems. Many IT administrators are focused so narrowly on the technology that they may miss facility related dangers that would be more obvious to the facilities department.

The right kind of space is needed to accommodate the IT footprint. For those who don’t know the area well, IT inhabits a mysterious world that exists in a sort of twilight zone behind the walls. Too often, it is relegated to closets and other leftover spaces that are not particularly well suited to the needs of the equipment. Call it the server room, the data center, or just “that closet with the computer stuff” (as one executive described it to me), IT spaces have special needs, and facility professionals must be prepared. Just like any other occupant of the facility, technological infrastructure has its own space requirements in order to operate at peak performance.

Unfortunately, in terms of square footage there is no rule of thumb in terms of IT spaces. This is because the IT systems that organizations use vary widely. Some may have a simple network, while others may have an enterprise wide Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. Facility managers will need to get an accurate count of computers from the IT department (along with dimensions) in order to be able to plan effectively.

Also, the physical size of the equipment varies greatly. Older servers are housed in cases similar to desktop computers, while newer servers are the size and shape of a pizza box. These machines can be stacked in racks that take up far less room. Newer still are tiny blade server computers which can fit as many as 100 computers in a rack that only requires 3′ x 3′ floor space.

But facility professionals should not make the mistake of assuming that space needs will decrease, because component sizes are reduced. One of the latest trends is to centralize all computers in a single location and let users connect to them via cabling from anywhere in the facility. Concepts like this can dramatically increase IT space needs.

The location of the IT footprint within the facility is also crucial. Keep them away from main electrical buses, and make sure that any radio transmission equipment is either kept far away or shielded.

Server rooms should not be in the basement. Statistically, water damage is one of the most common causes of major equipment damage, and basements have a tendency to flood. If an IT space must be in a basement, use a raised floor system to keep it off the lowest level (this will also allow for easier cabling runs under the floor).

In keeping with the anti-water theme, server rooms should not be near water pipes, whether fresh, waste, or cooling water. Computer rooms can be destroyed by something as simple as a flooding toilet from a floor above.

Risks to IT also come from the outside world, so new physical sites should be carefully investigated. Check to see if the facility is in a flood plain. If it is, the national weather service or FEMA can supply data on the highest recorded flood levels. This will serve as a gauge to help facility executives keep the company’s computer systems safely above that point.

However, higher is not always better. Stay away from the top level if possible. This will help to mitigate storm risks from leaks and severe storms like tornados. The core of the building is statistically safest and is usually an ideal location.

Clearly, facility management professionals and IT representatives should work together when planning technology oriented spaces. This will serve to protect the organization against avoidable disasters and keep the company operating as it should.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Managementtextbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago ,IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, andreliability of client business through technology.