Archive for January, 2012


Distributed Cooling Through Distributed Process?

A coworker of mine forwarded an article to me about Google’s data center in Finland:

It’s a great read about a new facility that uses sea water that from the pictures appears to make a direct heat exchange with their chilled water system rather than using chillers.  What is more fascinating to me though is the use of a software platform called ‘Spanner’.  The article discusses a data center that Google operates in Belgium where the temperatures are mild, and they seldom need expensive amounts of cooling.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned how having multiple sites and multi-facility redundancy have eliminated the need for massive CapEx on any one facility for expensive backup power systems.  This scheme by Google shifts processes to another facility when the cooling bill gets too high, effectively using the planet as a kind of massive economizer.  There is always cooling available somewhere around the world.  Of course, I have no doubt that this scheme carries costs.  There is a reason why Google chose to locate a Data Center in Belgium (probably multiple reasons), and shifting a process temporarily might result in slightly less efficient or expedient processes due to transfer time and possibly latency across high speed networks.  

But still, it showcases the classic economic principle of achieving an economy of scale.  They grow more efficient with each facility they build.  Simply amazing.



They Don’t Build’em Like They Used To

2011 was a good year for me and my wife.  We bought an old home that was likely built in 1915.  We don’t know that for certain, but the records for the original deed and plans were lost in a fire in Dallas in 1930, so all homes in our neighborhood are listed as having been built in 1930, when the earliest remaining records are dated.  We did this because the home is made of old growth pine, old and strong, and as they say it has ‘good bones’ and charm to boot.

I happen to come from a family of builders in the city of McComb, Mississippi.  They built homes and commercial buildings that were contemporaries of my house.  My father still marvels at their perfection, noting that not a crack exists in the foundations that they poured and that the bricks were instructive for any mason living today.  These things are true because they didn’t have the benefits of construction science or building codes as we know them today.  Everything was tremendously over-built to compensate for this lack of knowledge.  To build a building like that today would cost a fortune.

Nowadays, things are built to suit, with as much economy as possible.  This is not to say that buildings are ‘cheap’, but rather that they more closely reflect a near perfect pairing of need and use with the built form.  For example, there is no need to provide a structure that would bear three times the load proposed in the occupancy of the building. The majority of the data center work I have done in the last few years has been in existing facilities, ranging in age from 60+ years to 20+.  Many people see a building that has space and proximity to critical infrastructure and the appropriate setbacks and security measures, and think that it might be suited to a data center occupancy.

I am happy to say that there isn’t a (non-condemnable) structure that can’t accommodate this use.  But this gets into an architectural topic that was vogue in the late 80’s and early 90’s: conversion of program.  The program has quietly become more crucial as buildings have become more efficient for a given purpose.  The ideas passed back in the day were that program and occupancy were largely just social assignments to buildings that could be swapped out in compelling and interesting ways (Like how a McDonalds could be converted into a house, all the essential elements were there, right?).  What this project type has taught me is that this is often easier said than done.  This to me is a axiomatic moment, it is an exhange of economy for flexibility.  Because the building is no longer over built, it may not immediately be suitable for a given occupancy without some work first.  If we spent our time designing and building for a multitude of programs, then a building’s cost would rapidly rise.

So what does all this mean for data centers in existing buildings?  Nothing more than that there are challenges with such a demanding project type.  Most facilities don’t have built-in infrastructure, or structural capacity to fully accommodate the program.  These things can be added.  And then there is an ‘X’ factor that is unique to each building.  I always tell my superiors that something ‘funky’ will come up during the process, and without fail it happens; I have yet to pick up a pattern to the chaos.  These facilities just require a kind of patience and flexibility, because they will challenge even the most meticulous plans.  But I can’t really put into words the satisfaction I feel after a successful data center is inserted into an existing building.

January 2012
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