Selecting a Site for a Mission Critical Data Center

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As we saw from the recent Hurricane Sandy, site selection is a crucial aspect to data center reliability and availability. Pros and cons typically exist for most any site, but some are far less obvious than others.

Dozens of risks need to be considered and they fall into one of three categories:

  • Geographical risks, such as likelihood of natural disasters
  • Building characteristics and constraints, such as the age of the building and quality of the facility
  • Local risks relative to the municipal infrastructure, environment and employees

I recently wrote a white paper that covers all three categories but in this post I wanted to focus on that last one, as it includes items that may not be top of mind when considering the location of a data center.

First is availability of utility power, in terms of both capacity and quality. You’ve got tradeoffs to consider here. If you locate your data center in a city, you may face overloads and less abundant capacity. Rural areas can have worse power quality than suburban areas and, when there’s a power disruption, response time from the power company can be longer because of the distance between it and your data center.

Another consideration is whether you can achieve power grid redundancy, with access from multiple grids. Since the deregulation of the power distribution market, it’s more common to have more than one power distributor. Data center owners can take advantage to improve the availability of utility power.

Just as critical as utility power is water supply. Depending on the type of cooling architecture it uses, a data center can consume significant volumes of water every day, so you need to identify the capacity of the local public water supply system.

Water continuity is another issue, since water-based cooling systems and fire suppression systems need to be available 24 x 7 x 365. High availability data centers should consider on-site water storage to support continuous cooling and the fire sprinkler systems.

Another consideration is a readily available supply of fuel to power the generators that take over in the case of a utility power outage. As we learned from Hurricane Sandy, when companies in Manhattan had difficulty replenishing fuel supplies because the roads were impassable, it pays to have enough fuel storage on site to last at least several hours if not days. At the very least, the data center should be located a convenient distance from fuel providers, ideally with several different routes to choose from.

When choosing a location it’s also a good idea to consider who your neighbors will be, to calculate the potential for man-made risks. High-risk neighbors include airports, prisons, military camps, chemical storage facilities, freeways, rail lines, natural gas and other pipelines, electrical transmission and distribution lines, and radio emissions. Be sure your data center is far enough away from such high-risk neighbors to avoid potential problems.

Finally, remember that you’ll need highly qualified people to operate your data center. Here again you face tradeoffs. You can more easily find qualified people in a highly populated city, but it will likely cost more to retain them. Rural areas, on the other hand, have more limited talent pools, which can lead to under-staffing or less qualified staff. Keep in mind that goes for the local vendors who provide power and cooling equipment, as well, which can cause delays of service or force you to retain more in-house facility engineers. In some areas, location also determines whether a data center is staffed by union or non-union employees, which can significantly impact installation and maintenance costs.

To learn about more considerations when selecting a site for your data center, check out APC by Schneider Electric white paper 81, “Site Selection for Mission Critical Facilities.”


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