Are you wondering how big and fast-growing the data center industry is? Ask yourself that question the next time you make a purchase with a charge or debit card. Or search the Internet. Or visit your bank (in person or online). Or see your doctor. Or the next time you do ... well ... almost anything.

Data centers have become societal repositories for one of our most valuable commodities: information. Their projected growth has no end in sight. Even in times of economic downturn, data centers have continued to grow. That means there is tremendous opportunity in this industry for electrical contractors who are willing to learn the unique demands of this specialized field.

“There’s no disputing that the data center industry is growing at record pace,” said Jill Eckhaus, CEO of AFCOM, an industry association of data center managers and executives. AFCOM estimates that there are approximately 10,000 large-scale data centers in the United States.

“Data is arguably the lifeblood of today’s business world, so companies are investing heavily in the construction of new data centers or redesigning and building out existing facilities. For contractors, this growth surge represents an unparalleled opportunity to prospect for and secure business, and the keys to success will be education and networking,” Eckhaus said.

APC’s Rob Bunger, Enterprise & Systems Business Development, agreed. “The data center market is currently seeing a resurgence. Existing data centers are being upgraded, and new ones are being built. After the dotcom bubble [burst], there was data center overcapacity. That is mostly used up. [In addition,] many companies are consolidating IT equipment from multiple locations into a single data center in order to make operations more efficient, which in turn, is causing data centers to grow. For electrical contractors, this means that they should see a nice opportunity.”

Data centers make routine tasks faster, easier and more accurate. They house tens to hundreds of active devices that all are interconnected by copper and fiber optic cable: servers, mainframe and midrange computers, storage disks, tape backup, firewalls, network monitors, KVM switches, load balancers, network switches, routers and transport equipment.

High stakes

In order to understand the need for quality and insightful workmanship in data centers, consider an extreme example. VisaNet Systems, the world’s largest and most sophisticated consumer financial transaction processing system, reported in May 2007 that its average peak authorization message rate is more than 6,800 transactions per second. If its average transaction is $100, then VisaNet processes $680,000 per second (or $40.8 million per minute) through its data centers. Those stakes, as well as the corresponding need for competent, experienced tradesmen, are very high.

Another example is the surgeon who depends on an uninterrupted flow of high-quality data information during an operation, where life hangs in the balance. Multiply the disaster potential of a failed medical records data center by the number of operations going on at any one moment, and you have real life for Tom Roberts, director, data center services for Trinity Information Services, a $6.1 billion Catholic health system.

“We have 6 million patients in our database,” Roberts said, who also is an electrician and former electrical contractor. “It is hard to get ECs to understand the criticality of data centers. We often face the attitude of, ‘What is all that stuff that goes in data centers?’ without contractors understanding that lives are at stake.”

Here is a short list of electrical issues that are priorities in data centers:

  • Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy: Everything must be redundant—sometimes with redundant redundancies—at every conceivable failure point in order to stave off disaster in the wake of a worst-case scenario. ECs—from their project managers all the way down to their frontline staff—need to make planning and field decisions in light of that overriding requirement.

  • Cooling and humidity systems: Since the power transmitted by IT equipment through data lines is negligible, the power consumed by IT equipment from AC service mains is essentially all converted to heat. To make matters worse, a high or low ambient temperature or humidity, or rapid swings of either, can corrupt data processing and shut down an entire system. Therefore, technology rooms require precise, stable environments with tightly controlled temperature and humidity, and ECs decisions can negatively—or even critically—impact a data center. For example, merely pulling too many floor tiles for too long off of an under-floor cabling system will starve other parts of a data center of life-protecting cool air. Or improperly sealing (or not sealing) an outside penetration can leak humidity into or out of the data center environment.

  • Density issues: Floor space is costly, so data centers often use high-density servers that perform more work on a smaller footprint. But those servers demand even more power, generate more heat and create more cable management challenges. This can exacerbate the environmental control challenges, in which dense or poorly managed cable bundles can block vital air flow. Furthermore, some data centers are power constrained, so energy efficiency and conservation is vital.

  • Grounding: Data centers depend on quality grounding infrastructures for safety and signal quality, and ECs must understand the importance of quality grounding and bonding systems that are properly designed, installed and maintained. They should be viewed as active functioning systems that provide low resistance, visually verifiable grounding paths to maximize uptime, maintain system performance and protect network equipment and personnel.

Still need good work

Despite the potential pitfalls, there remains a huge need and opportunity for electrical service in the data center industry by ECs who can provide insightful and quality workmanship.

“Our data centers need a local face from our electrical providers,” said Trinity Information Services’ Roberts.

So what’s an EC to do who wants to get into the data center industry? One way or another, he or she must learn the industry demands and acquire the necessary knowledge and experience before going on-site.

First, the data center neophyte could study the available documentation and standards from sources such as IEEE, TIA, EIA, ANSI and the like. And in addition to the official standards, there is a plethora of Internet-based White Papers and Installation Guides from reputable industry manufacturers and leaders such as Panduit, APC, Siemon, Cisco and others.

An electrical contractor also can hire the expertise that it needs to work in data centers, such as a project manager with data center experience who can lead the company into the field. Or it could hire an applicable consulting firm to partner with it on its early data center jobs. In either case, the EC likely should start in relatively small data center projects and grow in its expertise and ability to perform larger projects.

That is the course C.H. Reynolds Electric Inc. of San Jose, Calif., followed when it hired Richard Yeadon as the vice president of data divisions to lead the company in its desired expansion into telecommunications cabling. Yeadon is now the vice president of operations. The company’s specialties include data centers, with an impressive list of completed projects for Silicon Valley clients such as Cisco Systems, Oracle and Network Appliance.

“We started small, learned as we went and were able to take on bigger and bigger projects as we went along,” Yeadon said. “In data centers, it all comes down to planning. Before a contractor goes into a data center to do any work, he must preplan everything. Order materials well in advance of when they are needed. Anticipate long lead times. There are places where a ‘just-in-time’ strategy will work, but not in data center work. And use prefabricated materials whenever possible, like preterminated cables; the extra cost of pretermination is worth the reduced time on-site and reduced potential for error at the time of installation.”

“My data center clients stand to lose huge amounts of money every day that they are down and a project runs behind schedule. I have got to turn on their systems on time—or ahead of time—every time,” he said. That strategy has worked; C.H. Reynolds has grown 600 percent in the last five years, and today it is a $50 million company.

Trinity Information Services’ Roberts, who also is a board member of AFCOM’s Data Center Institute, recommended that local construction industry organizations facilitate the data center learning process for its members by partnering with local AFCOM chapters to present seminars and on-site training sessions for electrical contractors. Both organizations’ members would benefit.

 “Contractors interested in mining the data center industry should consider joining a professional organization, such as AFCOM, to build relationships with data center managers and decision-makers and stay abreast of industry trends, best practices, new facility designs, power issues, etc.,” Eckhaus said.

Invisibility

Data centers already play a huge role in most of our lives—almost always without our knowledge, for a good data center is invisible to the end-user. The end-user sees only the services or transactions that take place: The debit card purchase is approved, the bill is paid on schedule, the records are available when needed, or the Web page appears online. As most of us use those truly amazing electronic services, we seldom consider the massive infrastructure behind them that brings those conveniences to life for us.

Data center managers need electrical contractors who will enable them to remain invisible. The stakes are high, but the demand is not going away. This will continue to be an area of opportunity for those companies that are able to deliver functionality as intended and needed.  EC

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.