Bigger Data

The evolution of data center technology is outpacing changes in nearly every kind of commercial building, making the data center installation and service market lucrative. However, it comes with plenty of challenges.

According to 2013 research from the U.K.-based Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA), the global structured cabling market will reach $8.3 billion by 2020. BSRIA expects data center cabling to account for $1.6 billion of that total.

Many factors are contributing to data center growth. The obvious trend is the increase in computing devices that are processing and storing data in the cloud. Combined with the growth of the mobile device market, telephones and security systems, among others, are implementing Internet protocol (IP) capabilities.

Other opportunities ahead for installers involve the shorter life cycle of information and communications technology (ICT) equipment and the desire to make data centers more energy efficient.

Planning ahead

Because of these rapid changes, data center owners, designers and contractors need to be aware that the data center soon will go through several generations of technology, said Jonathan Jew, the chair of BICSI’s Data Center Standards Subcommittee and vice chair of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) TR-42.1 Commercial Building Telecommunications Cabling Subcommittee.

He said that contractors should avoid planning and installing systems that are optimized for a particular equipment configuration.

“A well-designed data center should be able to accommodate several generations of ICT equipment,” Jew said. This means the contractor might be expected to modify and upgrade the electrical infrastructure, which could include branch circuits and receptacles, multiple times over the life of the facility.

“Good documentation and labeling will make these modifications and upgrades easier for everyone involved,” he said.

Jew said Tier 3 and Tier 4 data centers are critical facilities in which  electrical changes and upgrades may need to be performed without affecting the load. These facilities must be designed to accommodate the safe shut down of power to portions of the facility for maintenance and service. Because of the sensitive nature of these facilities, it’s important that they are designed correctly and that electrical work does not create downtime. In this endeavor, good documentation and labeling help enormously, as does good design with redundancy to avoid outages in the first place.

Contractors are more often playing a role in data center servicing simply because many organizations don’t want to bother with operating and maintaining such a facility, Jew said. At the same time, there are still many organizations that are building data centers to keep up with demand, offering new installation work.

For new installations and renovations, Jew said the industry continues to put more in less space—a continuing trend toward higher densities with more physical and virtual servers and more connections in a smaller footprint.

Copper vs. fiber

Balanced twisted-pair cable is still the most cost-effective connection for server and end-devices. For 10-gigabit Ethernet, 10G Base-T over Category 6a or better, twisted-pair cable is the most cost-effective option up to 100 meters, Jew said.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standards organization is working on a 25G Base-T and 40G Base-T that will support 40-gigabit Ethernet over Cat 8 cable up to 30 meters. That works for most applications, as 80 percent of the connections in data centers are less than 30 meters.

However, if a data center requires longer connections, optical fiber is the favored choice. The same is true for backbone connections between switches. To avoid requiring the more expensive single-mode connections in a small data center, a contractor should plan to stay within the distances supported by multimode fiber when planning routes, Jew said.

The initial cost of 10-gigabit copper systems is about 40 percent that of 10-gigabit fiber products, and the difference is expected to widen over time. One real advantage of fiber is its design for simple and easy handling and installation; it makes installations up to 70 percent faster. This represents considerable time and cost savings to data center operators and contractors.

Five years from now, 10G will be very common for server connections, and 40G will be the affordable, but still fast, connection. Bandwidth-hungry connections will be using 400G. By then, IEEE will be developing terabit or higher speed Ethernet applications and cabling standards to support these speeds, Jew said.

Boosting efficiency

The growth of cloud computing is also creating challenges around power management, cooling and energy efficiency, said Ken Koty, sales engineer at PDU Cables in Minnetonka, Minn. Data centers are consuming more power per square foot than a decade ago. Contractors and their customers are looking at the most energy-efficient infrastructure equipment from the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, to the transformers that step down the voltage that feeds servers, to the cooling systems.

More users accessing more data strengthens the need for electrical-­power-system redundancy. Good power-load management requires identifying potential weaknesses and addressing them through redundancies and backup systems. This can include evaluating every component of a power-feed system from substations to the server.

If one system component fails, another must be available to take its place. This involves more than just UPSs, batteries and backup generators. Redundancy means having dual-path power-feed systems in addition to backup power sources.

To better manage costs, many data centers are buying modular UPS systems that enable them to increase their size as needed. Typically, UPS systems’ efficiency ratings are near maximum load, so contractors must remember to size the service, switchgear and conductors to match the maximum growth capacity.

In addition, there is an ongoing drive to make data centers as green as possible, using renewable energy, green technologies and higher temperatures.

However, Koty said most data centers won’t aggressively pursue these activities until there is a measurable cost savings or related performance improvement to justify the investment.

“Where the risks exceed the rewards, change is slow to occur,” he said.

Data centers may want to hire an engineering firm that specializes in data center efficiency and best practices to evaluate their sites. In most cases, large improvements can be made to an existing site rather than building an entire new facility.

To accommodate the need for growth, if you are building a new facility and using a raised floor arrangement, Koty recommends at least a 3-foot rise in the floor to accommodate the higher loads per square foot with the newer equipment.

Value-added services

Koty said contractors would benefit from focusing on the value-added services they can provide a data center.

“In the past, I kept electricians on staff to help manage the data center. If cost-cutting forced some of these services to be outsourced, having an electrical contractor who is familiar with the electrical power systems of my data center and can provide those services would be very valuable to me,” Koty said.

Contractors can also provide on-call emergency services and test and maintain electrical equipment and systems. Areas that would be easy for data centers to outsource include testing, checking and replacing circuit breakers or doing infrared scans of electrical panels and connections.

Choose quality products

The biggest factor in data centers is uptime, and not using quality equipment could lead to downtime. A contractor may have created a weak link in its electrical system by powering it with non-UL listed, untested branch-circuit power cables, Koty said.

“If you look 20 years into the future, a data center built today might still have most of its original power equipment, but the racks might hold their fifth generation of servers,” he said.

In the future, a well-operated data center will have the highest quality energy-efficient power equipment available and follow as many best practices as possible.

“Since the IT equipment is going to change periodically, investing in an advanced network cabling system will pay dividends every time upgrades are made,” Koty said. “Establish a well-thought-out cabling plan and stick with it, designate cable pathways, use grids, use colors, and document everything.”

Understanding the customer

In any installation, it helps to understand the challenges in front of data center managers. Jeff Lechtanski, senior marketing manager of Leviton’s Network Solutions business unit, said there is the need for long-term strategizing on things like private versus public cloud, power management and efficiency, and virtualization and convergence. Business needs must be considered, including budget constraints, product availability and interoperability for upgrades.

Any installation needs to be a team effort between the installer and information technology (IT) departments, the overall facilities’ managers, and even company executives.

“All areas must work together to recognize the various challenges and be able to recognize what success looks like,” Lechtanski said.

As long as each area knows the challenges, expectations and desired outcomes, everyone can be working in the same direction.

However, the sheer amount of cabling used in today’s facilities brings a unique set of challenges, Lechtanski said. Aside from choosing the right level of performance for copper or fiber cable, there are other factors to consider. Lighter cable can improve shipping and transportation costs. Smaller diameter cable can facilitate better airflow and efficiency in cabling pathways. Also, there are high-performance cables that better prepare data centers for future network migration.

Often, decisions about network switches and routers are a leading factor in the cable selection, so working with a cable manufacturer that is closely aligned with the leading active gear manufacturers can help shorten that decision process.

“Regardless of the active gear choices, if you don’t get the physical infrastructure right, everything else is going to suffer,” Lechtanski said.

He said that Leviton recommends taking advantage of network or data center design services from connectivity manufacturers, which are often complimentary and can help alert installers to design trends, hardware introductions and customized options. In addition, practices, such as the use of preterminated cabling and implementing good standards for fiber testing and cleaning, will speed up installation and ensure the intended performance.

When it comes to the cable, options change constantly. Leviton Network Solutions recently introduced the first fiber cabling system to provide a full migration path from 10G to 40G and 100G, known as the Opt-X Unity system.

With the amount of computing everyone does, and the amount of data needing to be stored, this is a market with vast potential.

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