The Facility Technologist: Part II – Special Needs For IT Spaces

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

Last month, this column examined the importance of giving information technology a suitable place to call home. It also looked at how to find the right location for IT in today’s facilities. Naturally, once the right place has been found, facility professionals will have to build it out, which is why this month’s column will address the requirements of vital computer systems.

IT spaces have some very special mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire suppression requirements. It is possible to operate IT spaces without these characteristics, and many organizations do so. However, neglecting these elements simply adds to the risk that the IT systems will eventually experience a catastrophic failure. Again, a relatively small investment up front can save organizations from crippling IT disasters.

Server rooms and computer areas need dedicated cooling units. Don’t rely on the facility’s HVAC system. The per square foot cooling loads in IT spaces will be far higher than regular office space and will require cooling at times when the rest of the facility will not. Aside from nights, weekends, and holidays, some computer rooms even need cooling in the winter! Serious computer damage can occur if equipment is relegated to a closet that overheats over a long summer weekend when the main air conditioning systems shut down. In fact, overheating can be just as dangerous as flooding when it comes to computer systems.

Keep in mind that adequate space will be required both inside and out of the facility. Condenser units that exhaust heat will need to be placed on the roof or some other exterior space that’s safe, but accessible. There is also some related piping that will be required for the cooling loop. If the unit is placed on the roof, make sure there is a physical pathway from the data center to the roof.

Inside the computer space, air quality is extremely important. These devices must breathe in order to prevent damage. All computer components have some kind of fan for air circulation through the inside of the equipment. When anything contaminates the air, it will build up inside the equipment and eventually cause it to overheat. Compare the computer center to a hyper-allergic patient. Any contaminant, no matter how small, can have a profoundly negative impact on the equipment inside. Facility professionals should use High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration measures to keep the environment clean.

When it comes to IT systems, power quality and continuity are key. Users can’t simply pull the plug on computer equipment and then expect it to start right up again when power is restored. Unexpected power failures can wreak havoc on IT systems.

Computer centers must have a suitable form of uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Don’t be fooled into thinking those little boxes scattered around the office are even close to being sufficient. Just because these power strips work for smaller home-based systems, they simply can’t handle the demand in commercial applications.

True IT room UPS units are typically the size of a refrigerator (or larger) and can power an entire data center for periods of hours, days, or even weeks (if the UPS units are large enough). At a bare minimum, make sure there is enough capacity to power the critical systems for an hour or two so the IT staff can do an orderly shutdown.

A backup electrical generator is a great option if financially feasible, but a UPS system will still be necessary in order to handle the transfer from the power grid to the generator. Remember that the generator will require at least a few seconds to start; in that period, the IT systems will need some kind of power source to keep them going.

If a generator is installed, maintenance is crucial. Generators need to be started a minimum of once per month-even more during severe cold weather conditions. A control system may be a smart investment for generator operators. This system can automatically start the generator periodically, monitor its operating statistics (like oil pressure, etc.), and even sound an alarm if something isn’t right. These systems are not cheap, but they are another way to ensure the reliability of mission critical systems.

Fire suppression is another special requirement for IT centers. If that space has a water sprinkler system, it is only a matter of time before the equipment inside is destroyed. Water sprinkler systems will assuredly destroy IT equipment when triggered, so a non-water fire suppression system is essential in these areas.

There are many non-water fire suppression systems on the market, but facility professionals should select one that uses a clean agent. This means the system will extinguish the fire using a gas that does not leave any residue inside the IT equipment. Some chemical systems leave behind chemical residue that can short out electronic circuits or clog up air circulation and cause overheating.

Security and access control are also areas that have special requirements in server rooms. This is especially true today, when a single act of vandalism can cause extreme disruption of business. Most organizations require special access control in these areas, and many employ biometric devices in addition to other systems in the facility. Security cameras in the area are also highly recommended as a deterrent as well as an investigative tool.

The final piece of the IT protection puzzle is disaster planning. Is there a plan to relocate equipment and/or data if disaster should strike? Is there another space with enough power and HVAC capacity to serve as a backup data center? Disaster recovery plans can range from amazingly simple (“we’ll move all the equipment to the other end of the facility”) to the extreme. (I know of several organizations that actually have fully redundant mobile IT rooms inside semi-truck trailers!)

Data centers are definitely “special needs” spaces that must be understood by facility executives. There was once a time when these server rooms were relatively rare, but those days are gone. Building systems are rapidly converging on IT systems. Access control, security cameras, building automation, telephones (Voice Over Internet Protocol), and other systems are all now operating on computer servers and networks. This means that the average facility now requires far more IT equipment, and, therefore, far more IT space.

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.