Best practice in the management of data centre construction can be summarised as enabling the process and the relationships that best deliver the outcome specified by design. Research conducted among clients as part of this project focused on the logistics and process of delivering a data centre and indicated that the projects that are deemed successful share a number of characteristics:
- Capability – that the role and contribution of project parties lie within their expertise and capabilities, and that these are optimised through the process.
- Flexibility – that the process is able to accommodate changes whether these come from the client, from within the process (for example, through review and Continuous Quality Improvement systems (CQI), or from outside the process (weather, financial or compliance issues etc.).
- Process control and integration – ensuring that the logistics of the process are directed to the agreed delivery outcomes efficiently, on-time and on-budget.
- Validation and quality improvement so that the expertise and resources deployed on the project can be used to improve the outcome.
The capabilities of the commissioning company act as the starting point for the logistics of the construction process. Companies will vary enormously in their expertise in data centre design, project management and operations and will need to adapt their role accordingly and to rely on external experts where necessary. If they wish to minimise their involvement with the design/build process, then the option of buying ‘off the shelf’ from a developer, a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) or in modular form may be preferable.
The traditional design – bid – build model puts the onus on the client to manage the process and integrate the players within it as well as dealing with some of the project variations and revisions that may emerge as issues are passed from one stage to the next. Some of the complexities can be reduced by using fewer contractors and developing a truer partnership than is usually the case with the established customer/supplier model. This can, however, put greater pressure on the client company to oversee and validate the process.
Internal management is reported in the research as leading to problems with subcontractors, particularly where there is no prior working relationship, where logistical problems occur and where there is the need to work through and validate approaches independently before commissioning. This accounts for the very high use of specialist project management professionals and companies across construction activity since the project manager is seen as a key point of intersection between the strategy driving the construction and the process of delivery.
Very few data centre construction projects move from design through to commission without some change caused by the re-definition of client requirement, changing legal or compliance requirements, cost/financial issues or modifications made as the project takes shape or as elements of it are tested. There is a consensus among the research that projects which do not build in alternative or contingency scenarios are more likely to suffer major disruption through cost and time overruns and this compromises the ability to work the asset sooner and achieve a more rapid return on investment. The need for flexibility is also mentioned as a major reason for considering modular construction methods.
Flexibility is seen to be made further possible through the attributes of networks, particularly at the subcontractor level so that if there is a problem with a particular element of construction or fit-out, then a replacement can be found. It is also associated with expertise and specialist experience in data centre construction so that learnings from previous projects can be applied to unforeseen situations on the current build.
Process control and integration
The final two attributes – integration and validation – represent two sides of the same coin. As projects get more complex and involve greater numbers of people and companies, integration will be more critical and more demanding. Yet the greater number of parties involved also creates a greater possibility of review of the process so far and suggestions for improvement.
Integration is described in almost ‘symphonic’ terms – as the coordination of different skills and functions towards a shared construction goal. Again, a number of things that have worked are identified as well as a few that have not.
One of the keys to successful integration is to involve all relevant contractors and suppliers with all the information they need to know. This does not mean that every subcontractor needs full details of the business strategy behind the construction, but it does mean that there is an understanding among the key personnel of the thinking behind the project. This sharing opens up the potential for greater validation and improved outcomes. It may also prevent the project looping when the same problems need to be dealt with repeatedly. Conversely, integration is only seen to work if the client is kept informed of all decisions made that impact the core delivery, and, perhaps obviously, any that represent a variation from the original agreement.
Partly as a result of the increased capabilities offered by major global suppliers and towards standardisation, modularity and convergence, there is a trend toward a single provider of facility components, including enclosures, power distribution and protection, cooling, cabling and monitoring, rather than relying on different specialist providers. This is designed also to make the data centre maintenance/upkeep process afterwards more streamlined.
Effective integration is considered as most critical in the event of problems since it will enable a clear path back to the source and cause of a problem, and a course of remedial action.
Validation and quality improvement
The process of validation needs to be part of a wider and agreed quality control system through the project. While the focus of validation would be on the delivery of the construction, it may also cover the review of decisions on equipment, subcontractors and working conditions and ensure that the client’s interests are maintained.
Validation will bring in specialists across the process – in structural/‘shell’ work, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), power distribution, equipment fit-out and infrastructure, and testing of components for efficiency or resilience prior to commission. Further specialists will be needed in particular situations, for example, to increase the connectivity to and from the site, particular requirements of utilities or government. Other required expertise includes skills in modifying within existing buildings. While most headline data centres are green field construction projects, the vast majority of data centres, especially enterprise are located in buildings they share with other corporate activities.
As with any commercial undertaking, it is important to establish the methodology for validation and for quality control from the outset and communicate that to all parties. Just as the design will provide the blueprint for the end construction, so the quality model will provide the blueprint for the process whereby it is achieved.
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