Prefabricated Data Centers: Planning And Design

This first of a two-part article describes how prefabricated data centers help speed deployment and lower life cycle costs.
This first of a two-part article describes how prefabricated data centers help speed deployment and lower life cycle costs.

Modular Data Center Infrastructure: Part 1

Prefabricated Data Centers: Planning And Design

By Wendy Torell

Today’s digital environment has created new demands for the data center. The skyrocketing growth of datagenerated from social media updates, mobile purchases, connected devices, and more —is driving a need for increased data center storage and processing capacity. This, in turn, has led to a renewed focus on how these facilities can effectively and efficiently store and manage an ever-larger volume of data.
To ensure their data center can scale to the needs of their business, many data center facility managers have considered prefabricated architectures for their new builds or retrofits, as the design concept enables them to easily “plug-in” additional cooling or power capacity as needed while also realizing benefits including speed of deployment, predictability, and lifecycle cost.
But while the advantages of such an architectural system may be known, the process of deploying prefabricated data center modules can differ greatly from that of a traditional build, and can be less familiar to facility professionals.

This first installment of a two-part article explores the practical considerations that data center facility professionals might expect in during the planning and design phase. Part two, to be published tomorrow, will discuss preparing the site, procuring the equipment, and performing the installation of prefabricated data center modules.

Rendering of a prefabricated data center
Rendering of a prefabricated data center. (courtesy of Schneider Electric)

Planning and Design
While there have been major advances in modeling and analytics technology, the data center planning process remains a major challenge. Communication challenges, including discussions held at counterproductive levels of abstraction, and difficulty securing stakeholder buy-in are just a couple of the hurdles managers can face within any data center planning process.

Once the initial project parameters—criticality, capacity, growth plan, efficiency, density, and budget—are determined, prefabricated data center architecture can shorten the remaining steps. Reference designs depicting well developed prefabricated data center systems bring simplicity, efficiency and consistency to the planning and design process. Reference designs are tested, validated and well documented “blueprints” for prefabricated, modular construction, intended to help those involved in a data center deployment simplify and shorten the planning process. These documents convey recommended and proven best practices, and act as a starting point for the design process, allowing data center professionals to compare possible design scenarios and avoid common construction complications.

In addition to a quicker process, there are two additional planning considerations that are unique to prefabricated data centers: how the equipment is classified financially, and the degree of component-level design engineering involved.

Classification as “personal property”. By using prefabricated data center modules, facility owners may realize favorable financial or economic options. Factory-assembled data center modules that are packaged on a skid or within an enclosure are considered a “product” rather than a collection of parts or subsystems. Because of this assembly, it is less likely that a prefabricated data center module will become part of the larger facility/building, as would be the case if the individual components (panelboards, switchboards, pumps, etc.) were ordered and installed at the site. For tax purposes, this consideration, in many instances, allows prefabricated modules to be classified as a single piece of “personal property” rather than “site improvements” or “building improvements.”

Data center owners may therefore benefit from:

  • Booking and depreciating the prefabricated data center modules separate of the building, using a more appropriate useful life
  • Arranging a lease (or sale/lease-back) to establish financial treatment separate of the wholly owned assets on the site
  • Being able to be moved or relocated from one region to another with its prior depreciation recognized and its remaining value intact.

System level design engineering. Because an inherent benefit of prefabrication is that the components within the modules are well matched and thoroughly integrated, engineering of a modular data center is much more focused on the system-level design work than a traditional build, which is concentrated on specifying individual components and parts. By also providing the design team with the ability to work around the purely “architectural” decisions, much of the time associated with understanding the requirements and developing a design can be avoided, reducing typical overall design time by half (from 24 to 12 weeks).

Part 2 of this article will address issues relating to site preparation, procurement and installation.

Wendy Torell, senior research analyst, data center science center, Schneider ElectricTorell is a senior research analyst at Schneider Electric’s Data Center Science Center. She researches best practices in data center design and operation and develops content and tools to help clients optimize their data center environments. Torell received her Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering degree from Union College in Schenectady, NY and her MBA from University of Rhode Island. She is an ASQ Certified Reliability Engineer.

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