No one close to the data center industry doubts that the U.S. data center industry is in the midst of a major growth period stimulated by increasing demand for data processing and storage. That means there are and will continue to be increasing opportunities for -electrical contractors in the data center industry.

The traditional role of the electrical contractor has not been to determine how and where power is installed and used in a building. It was to simply install the power in a safe and professional manner for owners to use where and how they see fit. But in several key ways, data centers are unlike any other sort of building, so it is important to understand the unique elements about electrical power in this industry.

In addition, many data center projects are constructed through a design/build process in which electrical contractors have greater input than a typical bid-out project. Even if the contractor is not involved in the formal design process, everyone who is part of it likely understands the greater-than-normal role of electricity in data centers. That likely will allow for a similarly greater-than-normal voice for electrical contractors about the project design during the construction process.

Crash and burn

“Think of a data center like an airplane,” said Julius Neudorfer, CTO of North American Access Technologies Inc. (NAAT), a New York state data center design and implementation firm. “Redundancy on an airplane needs to be two or three systems deep. If circuits start tripping on an airplane, there still needs to be enough remaining systems capacity in place to allow the plane to keep flying. In the same way, downtime is no longer an option in a data center. It’s like crashing and burning the airplane.”

Therefore, electrical power redundancy must be thought through at each point and applied throughout. Ideally, each device in a data center will have continual access to two independent sources of power, each with enough headroom to supply all of the item’s electrical needs if the other source fails.

“Let’s say that a server rack has two power distribution units (PDUs), and each of the servers’ power supply cords are plugged into a different PDU,” Neudorfer said. “When both supplies are active, the dual supplies will share the server load at approximately 50 percent each. But if either power supply fails, the remaining supply must provide 100 percent of the load. But if each PDU supplies only 60 percent of its rated maximum load, with seemingly plenty of room to spare, there will still be a problem if one of the power sources fails. The entire power draw would be on the one remaining PDU, putting it at over 100 percent capacity. That would trip the PDU circuit breaker or branch breaker, shut down all equipment in that rack, and the plane would crash.”

Another concrete example of a potential failure of redundancy is if a data center does not build in an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) external maintenance bypass panel.

“This is especially likely in a smaller data center that may not have the luxury of a redundant UPS system,” Neudorfer said. “Some smaller UPS typically come with internal maintenance bypass panels, and it is easy to think that will be sufficient.”

While that internal panel will be sufficient for some maintenance operations, it will not suffice if the UPS needs to be powered all the way down or replaced.

“If that happens, you’re looking at a system shutdown unless you also have an external bypass panel,” he said.

Neudorfer recommended that the external maintenance bypass panel be purchased in concert with the UPS from the same manufacturer. He estimates that it will add about 10–20 percent to the cost of the UPS.

“But the contractor will be doing himself and his client a big favor by putting one in. I mean, once you go live in a data center, you can’t just kill the breaker in order to do maintenance,” Neudorfer said.

Scalable solutions

Another strategy that electrical contractors can employ is to become certified installers for scalable modular data center solutions.

Traditionally, each new data center has been uniquely designed, complete with raised floors throughout and central air conditioner systems to battle the heat put off by the IT equipment. Building and IT systems were installed for the entire projected life of the data center, which was about 10 years.

But in recent years, the marketplace and data center equipment manufacturers have come to recognize that it is better for many data centers to take a pay-as-you-go approach to design and construction, rather than construct all of the building and IT systems for the projected life of the facility. That strategy change affects the extent to which the electrical systems are installed in initial build-outs, as well.

Many data center equipment manufacturers have introduced standardized scalable modular solutions. Those typically include data racks/cabinets, cable pathways, UPS, air conditioners and air management hardware.

These scalable, modular solutions mean a new data center now has the luxury of installing only as much equipment and corresponding infrastructure as it needs for its initial opening. Scalable solutions make data center growth available in “bite-size” pieces, making that technology available to smaller firms and their installation contracts available to smaller contractors.

“Standardization eliminates a lot of the fear, myth and legend about the complexities of data centers,” said Carl Cottuli, vice president of APC’s Data Center Science Center. “No longer does each new data center need to be custom designed and installed, which used to keep outsiders out of the process and make it hard for new companies to break in. Now, manufacturers are providing pre-engineered systems so that contractors just need to be skilled in installing those solutions, not in designing them.”

In addition to scalable solutions saving owners upfront money on build-out costs, those solutions require fewer building infrastructure costs.

According to an IBM white paper, “Because it uses modular components and does not require the design and construction of a raised floor, scalable modular data center can potentially cost up to 15 percent less than traditional data center design and builds.”

Scalability also means that a contractor can develop and profit from long-term relationships with data center managers. If a data center installs only what it needs when it needs it, then it will require subsequent installations as it grows over its life span. Each subsequent installation means additional work for the electrical contractor’s installation team.

And an electrical contractor that also is a certified data center installation contractor can work with owners and designers to help determine how much power the data center will require up front. In becoming a certified installer, the electrical contractor will be schooled in the unique demands and appropriate strategies for electrical power for that manufacturer’s systems and, thus, a more knowledgeable and effective resource and partner to its clients.

Many leading manufacturers, such as APC and Cisco, offer contractor partnership programs, complete with training and certification. Contractors wanting to break into or increase market share in the data center industry will do well to research the various manufacturers’ partnership programs and then seek certification.

Fully rated gray box

Even if a new data center owner partners with a certified installer on a pay-as-you-go scalable modular solution, there still will need to be electrical power in place for the initial systems as well as the appropriate amount of infrastructure in place for future growth. The question is, “How much?”

“You will want to bring in enough power for the life of the data center to the utility entrance,” said APC’s Cottuli. “You will want fully rated gray box switchgear at the service entrance. Everything else you can roll out later. You don’t want to have to power down the data center to add a breaker. So install those, and leave them dormant. The high-count utility cable is comparatively cheap to install, and the power company will only charge for what you use, regardless of the cable size. It is all of the little individual runs that are expensive to install when you add them up. Those are the ones that you can wait on.”

Therefore, Cottuli recommended waiting on unused conduit and plug boxes, power cables and whips, power distribution units, panelboards and other distribution equipment that can be added without interruption to the site once it is in operation.

Data centers are projected to have an increasingly greater role in our technology-based society.

“As our economy shifts from paper-based to digital information management, data centers—facilities that primarily contain electronic equipment used for data processing, data storage, and communications networking—have become common and essential to the functioning of business, communications, academic, and governmental systems. Data centers are found in nearly every sector of the economy: financial services, media, high-tech, universities, government institutions, and many others use and operate data centers to aid business processes, information management, and communications functions,” states the EPA’s 2007 report to Congress

Such commercial presence and industry growth opportunities should motivate electrical contractors to learn about, enter and profit in this industry.

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.