If digitalisation wasn’t already moving at an unprecedented pace, Covid has sent it skyrocketing. For business, almost every sector has been transformed, with companies everywhere making a dramatic move to remote working. In fact, according to Global Workplace Analytics, it is estimated that 25-30% of the US workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
Before this transformation had even happened, big businesses were already sucking huge amounts of data and services from the cloud. But of course, this has now increased even further. So much so that the Frankfurt Exchange reached several new records for the amount of data going through the exchange during mid-2020.
All this data that we use – both in the US and globally – has to be housed somewhere. This, therefore, calls for ever more data centers to hold data either on a co-location or a cloud-based data set up.
WHO ARE THE “BIG CLIENTS”?
While oil was once the most valuable asset, data is now taking its place. Big tech companies such as Microsoft and Facebook are obviously huge data users, meaning they fundamentally need to create big data centers for themselves.
But this isn’t the only way to go about it. Many big businesses are now moving to produce or use co-location sites, shared with or provided by other vendors. Often, these facilities are used by big brands and hyperscale projects, with 50+mw of power requirements. To put this into perspective, for every megawatt supplied, there can be around $10 million in construction costs. So, what looks like an insignificant building can often be a hugely costly project for clients.
WHAT ARE THESE PROJECTS LIKE TO WORK ON?
Data centers are unique projects to work on. From a construction point of view, the building is fundamentally a big shed. They’re usually out on the peripherals of a city and take up a lot of land. This makes weighing up land prices, accessibility to power and connectivity to the internet backbone absolutely crucial in planning these projects. The coordination and sequencing are also really important.
HOW IS THIS AFFECTING CONSTRUCTION?
There's always been huge pressure in the design and construction of these programs - but in a world where digitalisation has soared at a pace none of us could have ever predicted, these project timelines are now even shorter.
On top of that, there is also a massive skill shortage of laborers, engineers and designers to meet the huge demands of the clients. In fact, the sheer volume of new projects is putting significant pressure on the design teams to produce the details that the client requires as quickly as they need them.
ARE SPECIALISTS STARTING TO EMERGE?
In a standard building, the general HVAC and lighting systems are like anywhere else. In spite of that, we’re still seeing many data center clients wanting to go to specialists. The reason for this is due to the nature of a data center and the specialist equipment required to cool and power the facilities, this is where the real specialist in this sector are called upon. Uninterrupted power supply, backup, resilience and cooling systems – as well as long-term sustainable solutions – is where the experts in MEP design can stand out from the crowd, in what is a busy MEP market.
Because of that, lots of businesses are now either solely providing services for data centers or vastly increasing their ability to deliver in this sector whether that’s engineering or design functions.
IS DATA CENTER CONSTRUCTION CHANGING?
Current transformational innovation is expected to dramatically impact construction over the next 3-5 years. In fact, the technology is moving quicker than they can build the data centers.
Firstly, we’re seeing a huge push on modular builds, with designing pods that can be manufactured offsite. We’re also now seeing more sustainable solutions, which can help with the high cost of power.
The cooling is important too. Depending on the size of the facility, many businesses are now moving to water-cooled systems that bring water straight to the tech rack. In Norway, businesses are using cold seawater or glacier water to cool some of the facilities.
HOW IS MODULARISATION AFFECTING THE DESIGN AND BUILD OF CONTRACT RELATIONSHIPS?
As anyone in construction will know, anything that is new and different is sometimes difficult to get across the line. This too remains the case with data centers.
On projects like these, the lead engineer is generally the MEP (rather than the architect), since they provide the design for the power and the cooling of the facility.
Often a really great design may cost more to construct than a traditional model, causing us to weigh up the costs. Is it more efficient to build off-site up to and produce a module and fit onsite or is it more costly? Or should we revert back to the traditional model by fitting them on site?
Ultimately, it’s probably going to take some of the bigger players like Tesla to make a change, as they have an efficient program of building several buildings simultaneously on a very short timescale. Only once we see the construction industry using more of this approach, will we begin to see a real, more permanent shift, both for data center construction, as well as across the wider sector.
MEP firms wishing to win datacentre work, what skills and experience they should have in their team? Answers from our MEP expert Mario:
Ideally having a team of engineers who all have 10+ years of continuous experience in the design of data centers would be a utopia. This is somewhat a bit of a pipedream due to the lack of skills available in the market as it stands. Having a strong leadership team with experience in delivering the design of Data Centers and then supplementing it with engineers who come from mission-critical design environments can offer a shorter route to upskilling your team. Investment in training and an acceptance that it will take time must be considered prior to appointing anyone that needs upskilled.
I often encourage companies to hire the people who really want it and work with them they generally will get there quicker under your direction rather than those who might seem to have all of the skills but are the wrong cultural fit. People must firstly want to invest in themselves before you can invest in them therefor a different style of interview is required, asking technical questions about data centers to someone that doesn’t have that experience is a waste of time.
• why do you want to do x
• what are you doing currently to learn about y
• what would you do to find z information
• what do you want to achieve by getting into data centers
• what have you researched about this industry in preparation for this interview
• what have you designed previously that would align closely to data centers
• where are your gaps of experience when it comes to data center design
What we are doing with these questions is finding out how much the candidate really wants it and if they are already invested in themselves before expecting you as their employer to invest into them. It should be an 80/20 split where the candidate does the 80% of the learning and research themselves supported by the employer who provider the 20% of the training for the gaps in their experience. Look out for our follow up article on how to upskill next generation of MEP Engineers for data-centers.
If you’re looking to hire skilled MEP engineers contact: Mario Fionda firstname.lastname@example.org