When it comes to information technology-facility design and construction, large-scale data centers have received more attention lately. It’s not difficult to see why. Data center construction remains one of the major bright spots in the building industry. But equipment manufacturers now are targeting smaller server-room operations, as well, giving owners new impetus to upgrade while providing savvy electrical contractors with new business opportunities.

The difference between what IT experts call data centers and server rooms essentially is size. Data centers generally are defined as dedicated facilities with their own cooling and backup power systems. Server rooms—also known as computer rooms or server closets—are, as their name implies, simply an area housing a company’s server equipment and often are tied into the larger building’s electrical and space-conditioning systems.

“Some IT directors will have a 20-foot-by-20-foot room, and they’re very proud of it. That’s their data center,” said James Barger, telecom technical services manager for Allison-Smith Co., an Atlanta-based electrical contracting and engineering firm. “But without at least two generators, it’s not a data center.”

Smaller size hasn’t isolated companies running server room facilities from the broad changes that are driving the data center building boom. Similar to many of their counterparts in larger organizations, server room managers may be facing facilities that have evolved over time and now require comprehensive updating. And, as is the case with many larger centers, business needs, rather than a simple desire for faster bells and whistles, is forcing these expansions.

“I see a lot of small- and mid-size clients that have slowly worked themselves up from a 10-by-10 closet or room, up to at least a small data center,” said Steven Harris, director of data center planning for Skokie, Ill.-based Forsythe Solutions Group, an IT-operations consulting firm. “And we’re seeing a lot of environments needing to change as much for growth as for computer requirements.”

Server manufacturers now are giving server room managers more options targeted specifically to smaller-scale operations. In the last six months, Dell, HP and IBM all have launched new lower-end data storage product lines to serve small- and medium-size businesses. The Dell MD3000i storage array network, for example, incorporates iSCSI protocols, so it can be plugged directly into existing Ethernet networks.

Bringing the client team together

One big challenge facing contractors that are working on IT-upgrade projects is the need to bring together multiple departments and their managers to ensure these efforts address both current and future needs. As larger data center operators have discovered, simply adding more computing capacity without also upgrading the underlying infrastructure can lead to big problems. But, in many companies, IT department heads may have little interaction with building-system managers, leading to upgrades that don’t adequately address new power protection and cooling needs.

“In a lot of organizations, you’ve got a lot of smart people who are used to dealing with their own aspect of technology,” Harris said. However, he said, these clients may not understand the implications regarding the building-system consequences of their technology decisions. “When you get to that point, you’re way behind the eight ball, and a fix is a long time away.”

Of course, as Barger said, power density isn’t quite the issue with server room projects that it can be with large-scale data centers—a good thing, he said, as ceiling heights in commercial office buildings may not accommodate the raised-floor plenums often preferred in data center cooling-system designs.

Planning for progress

One common goal for managers of both large- and small-scale IT projects is adaptability. These professionals understand that their new technology’s lifespan is likely to be significantly less than that of the facility itself. So, to save unnecessary expenses three years from now, they are turning to engineers and contractors to provide solutions that can grow with their organizations.

“Your load on day one is going to be different than it is in year seven,” Harris said. So, while contractors need to ensure newly installed wiring, cabling and equipment meet current needs, they also should help clients incorporate strategies that will allow easy expansion over subsequent years. This may mean simply including easily accessible floor and wall space to accommodate future equipment purchases. A desire for adaptability also can be a strong argument in favor of structured-wiring approaches.

“Structured wiring is much more efficient in the long run than running a new line every time a new server comes in,” Harris said.

Considering disaster-recovery plans as a server room is being designed is another way to help clients ensure their facilities will function as well in year three or four as they do on day one, Harris said.

“You can make changes significantly easier on the overall organization because you’ve got something you can fail over to,” he said. If such a plan isn’t in place, “then any time you do anything in that environment, you’re putting that company at risk.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.