Data centers are the invisible engines of modern life: Every time you post on Facebook, swipe a credit card or send an email, powerful computers housed in data centers make that transaction possible. Because the work done inside these centers is so indispensable to modern life, these facilities can’t be taken out of service when being upgraded or renovated.
Imagine if Google wasn’t available when you wanted to do a search – that’s why it’s imperative that there’s no unplanned downtime, as that would cost clients revenue and reputation. Ensuring such uninterrupted operation presents significant challenges to the construction teams, and makes them even more complicated than building new data centers.
Here are four of the top challenges to working in live data centers:
1) Plan and plan some more: Intense planning is the foundation for successfully operating in live data center environments. Step-by-step methods of procedures must be developed that include specific timelines, and contingency plans for a variety of scenarios need to be developed. All plans need to be approved by various stakeholders, a process that may take weeks. Because of the tight sequence of work that must be done, lean production processes – as originated by Toyota in its auto manufacturing operations – may be used to maximize efficiency and quality. Because of all these considerations, construction activities are typically planned months in advance.
2) Limited work windows: Forget about being able to work on the project uninterrupted from start to finish. Significant work can only be done during periods of time specified by the owner of the facility or of the computer servers located inside. Time that’s off limits may stretch up to a third of the year, and may include the winter holiday season for retailers and, for financial clients, the spring tax season and the end of each quarter. During these periods the only work that may typically be done involves activities – such as painting and installing electrical conduit – that pose no risk on ongoing operations. When work is allowed, construction teams typically need to maximize that opportunity by working multiple shifts per day and on weekends.
3) Don’t rely on as-built documents: To tap into existing electrical and mechanical systems, you have to know what’s there and how it’s all integrated together. However, the answer to that puzzle likely doesn’t lie in the as-built drawings and other information that describe the existing facility. This is because maintenance staffers have likely changed and modified systems over the years but haven’t properly updated the drawings. (And much of the existing stock of data centers hasn’t been modeled with building information modeling (BIM)).
Because data centers are so critical, you need to confirm that information on the existing facility is correct. Means of achieving that assurance include physically tracing electrical feeders and other systems to see where and how they connect.
4) Minimizing impacts: Controlled indoor conditions are essential to proper data center operation. This means that construction activities can’t impact that environment. Work areas must be sealed with plastic to contain dust; the temperature of the air must be constantly monitored; and protective booties over footwear may need to be worn. On one of Skanska’s current live data center projects that involve a raised floor, we can’t remove more than six floor tiles at a time so as to not impact the under-floor air pressure