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The significance of great data centre design

Image: Adobe Stock / vladimircaribb

Functional, efficient, logical, and – perhaps to some – boring. Since data centres have been around, those were the core tenets of their design with boxy concrete structures hiding away the storage infrastructure, server rooms, switches, routers, firewalls, cables and racks that power our modern-day lives.

In the past, the focus of these construction projects has been based on functionality and efficiency. They were a means to an end, with little thought behind things like architecture, aesthetics and sustainability.

As data volumes continue to rise, more than $350 billion is projected to be spent between 2022 and 2027 on data centre construction to keep pace with exploding usage, which presents an extraordinary opportunity for today’s data centre designers to build future-proof facilities that are greener, more efficient and just plain better looking. Already, we are starting to see a shift in the way data centres are being built as a result of today’s data demands and the motivation for companies to more seriously heed the call to become sustainable. The data centres of tomorrow will be tasked with meeting an increasingly complex array of factors and requirements. From top-level security to sustainability and more, these build-outs are becoming more complex and sophisticated by the minute.

While most might see this as a challenge or hindrance, there is an incredible opportunity to design facilities with improved architectural elements to create a space that is functional, inclusive, and aesthetically pleasing for visitors and staff while also serving their data needs. For operators, there is tremendous value in curating a space through intentional design that checks all of the functional boxes, like being scalable and able to meet cooling, power, space, sustainability and security needs while also incorporating accessibility, renewable energy, sophisticated design styles and proprietary technology.

The green elephant in the room

Arguably the most notable and impending trends in data centre design are those focused on sustainability, and more broadly, environmental, social and governance (ESG). There has been a shift in recent years from efficient operations being seen as a ‘perk’ to now becoming the standard to which the world expects facilities to adhere, causing a major shift in the industry that starts as early in the process as site selection.

Growing public concerns regarding climate change mean many are looking to work solely with organisations and vendors who share in the same commitment to sustainability, and leaders are also looking to innovate in this arena. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, 83% of consumers believe companies should be shaping ESG best practices, 86% of employees prefer to work for companies that care about the same issues that they do, and 91% of business leaders believe their company should act on ESG issues. If there was ever a time that the notion of voting with your dollar rang true, it’s today, and intentional data centre design can win clients in this area.

What does that mean for data centres? Incorporating sustainability and energy efficiency into your design is more important than ever.

There are certain obvious technical elements needed in your design in order to promote sustainability in your facility, including things like renewable energy use and more efficient cooling methods. In addition to those key considerations, designing and building a sustainable data centre starts long before any materials are even ordered as a site is being selected.

Where most are taking an outside-in approach to evaluating potential sites by looking at how the environment will affect their centre, implementing sustainable practices requires reversing that train of thought and instead looking at how your facility will impact the environment. Record breaking droughts combined with data centre water usage in the USA topping out at nearly 1.7 billion litres per day are resulting in public outcry like that seen in Mesa, Arizona. Good data centre design in this regard should take into account:

  • What forms of renewable energy are most feasible to use based on the site?
  • How can we be better stewards of our water use, particularly in drought-prone locations?
  • Can the data centre be designed in a way that takes full advantage of the natural weather in the location selected?
  • What types of building materials are available near the site I’ve selected to cut down on wasteful travel/hauling of materials?
  • Based on the environment I’m building in, what extra design considerations should we make to conserve energy (think thicker insulation, better utilisation of ambient air for cooling and directional placement of the data centre itself to benefit from natural breeze or sunlight (particularly for renewable energy use considerations).

Don’t rule out design flourishes, either. Design elements like outdoor landscaping that uses native plants and artificial turf can be utilised to cut down on water usage while also offering a beautiful outdoor space for employees and visitors. Plain and simple – sustainability is, and should be, a driving factor in modern data centre design.

Curating an experience

The technical requirements surrounding a data centre build are unavoidable. Meeting capacity and power needs while also incorporating sustainable practices are vital to your facility. The conversation shouldn’t stop there, though. Once your racks and servers are in place and you look to stand up your data centre walls, there is an opportunity to elevate your design by incorporating the (often forgotten) human element into your design.

As stated earlier, data centre design has been based on functionality with very little, if any, thought placed on aesthetics. But designing to meet technical needs and designing for aesthetics don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts. An increase in remote work might suggest that we are even more removed from physical environments, but I would argue that it actually increases the need for things like physical facility tours. With everyone spending the majority of their time online, it can be easy to get lost in the waves of competitors focused on regurgitating the technical specs of their facilities. To truly stand out, you must have a physical space that invites your visitors in and provides an experience that resonates after they leave.

That may sound easier said than done, but there are a few simple yet impactful ways to achieve that balance:

  1. Design with everyone in mind. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) is growing in its significance among companies looking to elevate the experience they provide both internal and external audiences. United Minds found that among DE&I leaders surveyed, those with budgets between $10M and $49M saw a 24% increase in those budgets. Utilising those DE&I budgets should include the design elements baked into your facility.

Design elements that should appear in your plans include ramps that are integrated into walkways, elevators, wide server aisles, accessible racks and braille signage.

  1. Data centre security is advancing at a  rapid pace, with robotics expected to become a necessity for data centres in the near future. According to Gartner, by 2025, half of cloud data centres will deploy advanced robots with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, resulting in 30% higher operating efficiency. Facilities that are able to deploy robots will be ones that take their use into account during the design phase. At Novva, for instance, our robotic dogs designed by Boston Dynamics are able to scan QR codes at their level to be able to perform routine monitoring tasks and a set of predefined missions. Facial and palm recognition software, gate authorisation and enhanced access security across the board are ways data centre security design is advancing. Good data centre design breaks the pre-defined moulds of what data centres of yesterday looked like to incorporate this type of groundbreaking technology to advance facilities in our industry.
  2. Another way to create an impactful space is through flat out good aesthetic design. To date, data centres haven’t been hailed as the next Fallingwater or Louvre,  but the data centres of the future will evolve to be more visually appealing than the straightforward designs of the previous decades. While functionality might be the end goal, it doesn’t have to come at the cost of creating a visually beautiful space that:
    1. Provides immense value to employees who enjoy being in the facility
    2. Impresses touring prospects to win business.

 Finishing your space with architecture and design that is aesthetically pleasing and unique is the final step to an end-to-end intentional project. Your data centre’s specs can easily be accessed. The experience that a well-rounded facility brings when it marries data requirements with modern design is something that cannot be easily summarised.

The data centre industry is on the verge of lasting change, not only in meeting rising data demands but in how it operates as a whole. Sustainability and digitisation are converging to set the stage for a new generation of data centres that provide a holistic experience for employees and visitors alike. We are witnessing the birth of the facilities of tomorrow through modern design and architecture that is sure to change what we think of when we hear the term ‘data centre.’

Picture of Wes Swenson
Wes Swenson
CEO of Novva Data Centers

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