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Stepping into IT

Data center owners and managers are driven by one primary goal as they expand, construct or renovate the storage areas for their computer systems and associated components. Their goal is energy reduction. Growing ever larger, data centers are major power consumers in the commercial market; however, improving technological efficiency is reining in some of that consumption. The focus now is on minimizing consumption through effective cabling. To address this need, standards organizations and technology vendors are attempting to aid the construction industry in providing sustainable installations, reducing carbon footprints and developing ways to measure and certify power consumption reductions in these rooms filled with stacks of power-hungry servers and the necessary cooling equipment.

In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicted power consumption in data centers would double between 2005 and 2010. That prediction did not come true, in part, because of a slowdown in the economy and because computer chips are being designed to consume less energy. Therefore, the actual increase in consumption was 56, rather than 100 percent. However, with the expected uptick in the economy and the continued need for Internet-based data, power consumption is likely to grow more than it has in the past five years.

For contractors, when it comes to standards, changes are on the horizon. The Telecommunications Industry Association’s (TIA) voluntary 942 standard for the design and cabling of data centers has been one of the association’s most popular standards, said Herb Congdon, TIA’s associate vice president for standards and technology. (Congdon also was the long-time chair of the TIA engineering committee for cabling infrastructure standards). The 2005 standard was the first of its kind for data centers, and it includes guidelines for cabling infrastructure and site space and layout. A new version of the 942 standard is expected to be released this year, he said. The new version will be the 942a, which is being developed by the Commercial Building Telecommunications Cabling Subcommittee. The revised version is intended to address the latest demands on the data center industry. Several expected modifications include a change in copper cabling—for example, Category 5e will no longer be recognized for horizontal cabling, while Cat 6 and 6a balanced twisted-pair cable types are permitted. For fiber optics, the revised standard will specify a minimum of OM3 for multimode optical fiber cable. Recognized optical fiber connectors also will be addressed.

Other groups are focusing on energy efficiency. For example, the new Sustainable Technology Environments Program (STEP), which offers an indoor alternative to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, is worth keeping an eye on. The STEP Foundation, a nonprofit organization of technology trade associations, is managing the STEP rating system. The program is intended to help contractors and facility owners with the planning, designing, integrating and operating technology systems, while reducing long-term environmental impact from technology deployment. As a result, not only will the system consume less energy, but it will reduce raw material usage. STEP is intended to bring together the technology manufacturers and other stakeholders—such as codes and standards developers, integrators and contractors—and for certifying projects that meet STEP requirements.

While LEED covers the infrastructure of the building itself, STEP was developed to address the technology installed inside. Once the walls go up, the LEED program stops.

“It’s still a relatively new program,” Congdon said.

The foundation intends to produce STEP-rated vendors, and while there are many ways to cable a data center, some ways are greener than others. There will be a STEP rating for that.  

However, to earn STEP certification, a project must meet specific criteria, including lean design, minimized energy consumption, and material or equipment reuse. For example, contractors may need to work with the owner to learn hours of use for each space before determining what equipment can be disconnected from main power or be placed in standby mode when that part of the system is not in use. In addition, more points toward accreditation can be earned with the reuse of existing or reclaimed infrastructure.

STEP is intended to cover more than just data centers, but since the data centers are such major consumers of energy, the need for greater efficiency is more pronounced.  

What’s in center?
Considerable work is underway at data centers to build new locations and do more with existing resources. Modular cabling systems for fiber connectivity are gaining in popularity, according to David Lytle, global solutions architect, at networking solutions company Brocade, San Jose, Calif. Modular cabling introduces the concept of plug-and-play, simplifying the installation of cables and reducing the labor time and costs. In this case, cables are typically terminated and tested in advance at the factory. However, although modular cabling systems are easier and cheaper to install, they often compromise flexibility and require a commitment from the customer to stay with a specific vendor to ensure compatibility, Lytle said.

Networking equipment is getting denser, and port counts in the data center are increasing, Lytle said. Therefore, managing cables connected to these devices is more of a challenge than in the past. Multifiber push-on (MPO) cable assemblies are designed to simplify cable management by providing a single connector at one end of the cable and multiple duplex break-out cables at the other end.

Of course, modern data centers include basic servers, but they also include diverse devices, such as blade servers, clustered storage systems, virtualization appliances and backup devices; networking equipment must interconnect all of these pieces. The installer must take all of this networking into consideration. To upgrade an existing data center, applications such as Microsoft Visio can assist a contractor in documenting the topologies of the network as it is and as it will be used in the future. Flexibility built into any system that can accommodate both copper and fiber is a good idea, Lytle said. Planning for growth and for changes in technology is essential. In that way, contractors will be expected to implement the ports and cabling that will support those changes while the cable is still being run.

Contractors can expect that, as networking equipment continues to become even more dense, managing the cables that connect the technology will become even more complicated. Understanding the standards and the energy-efficiency plans from groups, such as the STEP foundation, will give the contractor a leg up on the competition and ease the pain for data center owners.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.

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