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Data Center Construction Becomes Agile

Data center construction hasn’t traditionally ranked high on a CIO’s list of priorities. Makes sense, like all disciplines—IT included—construction has its own “secret language,” and overseeing all of the company’s information processing activities leaves little time to learn how to read blueprints, so the “hands-off” approach provided the path of least resistance. Of course, this policy of benign neglect did result in some unpleasant post-hand-over discoveries, “Why are my racks over here and the PDU’s way over there?”. This type of dissonance is driving a new model of data center construction.

Historically data center design and construction operated under the “build it big, and we’ll fill it up someday” model. Unfortunately, this “behemoth” mode of development isn’t always cost or resource efficient and has resulted in more than one CIO having to explain why the data center they built to last for 20 years is now obsolete after five. Agile construction is a methodology that injects both speed and accuracy into the data center construction process. The use of Agile methods enables more precise data center design and construction allowing firms to avoid the costs of overbuilding by incrementally expanding in the specific configuration required a company’s needs at the time.

Agile projects incorporate three central elements:

  1.  3D modeling to provide a more in-depth perspective versus conventional 2D drawings
  2. Off-site prefabrication to compress the delivery schedule
  3. The use of robotics and VR/AR technology to enhance efficiency, quality, and safety.

Rather than flat 2D drawings, Agile projects begin by using Building Information Modeling (BIM) to develop a 3D model of the data center. The accuracy of the model facilitates the rectification of significant design issues before the first shovel hits the ground. Using a 3D model also enables multiple elements of the facility (pre-fabricated walls for example) to be built off-site, thereby reducing project delivery schedules by as much as 40%.

The ability to use VR and AR enables CIO’s and members of their data center team to “walk through” the virtual data center and identify previously overlooked components, a biometric scanner for example.  AR can also be used to overlay design with actual field conditions to find other anomalies that can be corrected during construction rather than after the data center’s completion to improve operational efficiency and eliminate post-handover modification costs.

Agile methodology starts with the end in mind rather than beginning with actual space planning. Focusing on the elements of the completed facility, cabling layout, for example, first results in a facility that is optimized to meet the organization’s needs and aids in avoiding having to work around previously unforeseen design idiosyncrasies.

For all of the advantages of Agile construction, it does heighten the opportunity for paralysis by analysis. The enhanced perspectives available with BIM and VR/AR that allow you to “keep making things better” can be detrimental to your delivery schedule. As you might expect, the law of diminishing returns can also arise in even the best-run Agile process leading the more involved CIO to take command as ancillary issues arise, “We’re putting the office wall there. End of discussion”.

Agile construction, and its tools, aid in avoiding the issues that typically arise, overbuilding and cost overruns, using historical methods. Active CIO participation throughout the design and construction process enables them to get data centers optimized for their current requirements with the flexibility to expand to incrementally in the future.

Nancy Novak