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Cutting corners in data centre design

Image: Adobe Stock / sdecoret

While many data centre operators are looking to cut corners during design to save money, Niklas Lindqvist, Nordic General Manager at Onnec, explains why this could lead to long-term problems – like frequent downtime and limited scalability.

Today’s data centres are in a constant battle to keep up with the insatiable demand for seamless connectivity and cutting-edge data processing. But this constant battle presents its own set of challenges, all while the pressure to reduce costs continues to mount. 

One of the most significant issues is downtime – a problem that has affected 80% of data centre operators in the past three years, according to Uptime. The consequences of downtime are severe, ranging from reputation damage and lost revenue to increased costs and decreased employee productivity. With IT leaders prioritising round-the-clock data access and zero tolerance for downtime, holistic data centre design is key to avoiding costly mistakes.

What happens when companies take ‘shortcuts’ in data centre design?

With new business technologies – particularly AI tools – appearing on the market almost daily, data centres are facing an unprecedented surge in demand. In response, some operators may find themselves tempted to cut corners to reduce costs. However, these choices, while promising short-term savings, lay the groundwork for substantial future costs and complications, such as outages and downtime.

When futureproofing data centres, designers cannot afford to look at the individual pieces of the puzzle – from power to cabling – in isolation. Design decisions can have a lasting impact on the business landscape. Once data centres are operational, changing these design aspects is costly, and potentially irreversible. As a result, cutting design corners can lead to enduring issues like frequent downtime and limited scalability. Recognising this problem can help operators plan for future design needs and the required infrastructure.

What aspects of data centre design are typically neglected?

Traditionally, the focus in data centre design has predominantly focused on power and cooling needs. Other areas, such as cabling, are often placed on the back burner. However, this neglect can cause significant problems when carrying out future upgrades – including tangled and disorganised connections. When cabling is poorly laid out, it often requires complete removal and reinstallation – which leads to additional costs and downtime.

Choosing lower-quality cabling can also be counterproductive for cost-conscious operators, as it necessitates early replacements – again incurring extra costs. On top of this, low-quality cabling makes it considerably more difficult to pinpoint issues – which means operators spend more time and cost on troubleshooting. Just as a second-rate audio cable can waste the quality of a top-end Hi-Fi, poor cabling can squander the value of high-performance data centre hardware. High-quality cabling is vital if operators want to avoid expensive downtime, productivity losses, and unexpected costs. 

Do these problems apply solely to new data centre designs, or can they impact data centre upgrades?

When it comes to data centre setups and upgrades, putting your money into top-notch cabling is a smart move. This will future-proof your operation for AI and whatever technology is coming next. This investment doesn’t just allow operators to benefit from long-term cost savings, it also keeps data flowing fast, minimises downtimes, and gives businesses the flexibility to stay on the cutting edge. 

Neglecting to invest can cause headaches for operators, regardless of whether they’re constructing a brand-new data centre or enhancing an existing one. Data centre operators and managers must prioritise design and invest in high-quality cabling and components from the start. Giving data centres the flexibility needed to adapt is vital, because designers won’t know what the new hardware requirements will be required in two or three years. This proactive strategy acts as a shield against frequent downtime, scalability limitations, and unexpected costs down the road.

How will AI transform data centre design requirements?

AI applications are driving the evolution of data centres, as they require specialised infrastructure tailored to the unique needs of machine learning algorithms. To keep up with the escalating global investments in AI, three key areas of design must evolve.

First and foremost, there’s a huge increase in the appetite for power. AI computation relies heavily on specialised processors, particularly GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) and DPUs (Data Processing Units) – which draw considerably more power, emit more heat, and occupy more space compared to traditional CPU-powered racks. 

Secondly, this means data centres must invest in robust power infrastructure and devise efficient cooling solutions to prevent overheating to combat relentless energy consumption. While air cooling still has a role to play, it often falls short in cooling AI hardware efficiently. Often, liquid cooling is the preferred option for high-performance chips, offering superior cooling and potential cost benefits. 

Finally, cabling – often the ‘forgotten child’ of design – is also habitually overlooked and under-budgeted. As with power connections and cooling systems, cabling is embedded infrastructure. These are all built into the structure of a data centre complex. This means systems can be extortionately expensive to replace, if not outright economically impossible – leading to huge problems down the line.

In what ways can a holistic approach to design ensure data centres remain prepared for AI and other emerging technologies?

Operators need to embrace a holistic approach to data centre design, leaving behind their outdated siloed approaches. This means being proactive in preparing for future expansion and handling the increasing demands of AI and technology, without the need for major structural changes.

First, operators must think beyond immediate needs and consider the long-term vision for the data centre. By stepping back and adopting a strategic perspective, operators can ensure that design discussions – on aspects like power or cabling – are based on anticipated usage. This requires developing a shared vision between all stakeholders, so teams are aligned on a common design end goal. When these decisions are made collectively – drawing on the expertise of various teams – operators are in a much better position to create a well-rounded and adaptable facility.

On top of this, designing data centres with modularity in mind minimises the need for frequent infrastructure changes. As predicting hardware requirements in the fast-evolving tech landscape is challenging, modular design offers the agility to adapt to unforeseen developments. AI’s influence also extends beyond design requirements; it can act as a potent support system, empowering operations teams to efficiently manage data centres, extend their lifespan, and boost sustainability. By integrating AI seamlessly into the design process, data centres are ready to evolve with the ever-changing landscape of technological advancements.

Picture of Niklas Lindqvist
Niklas Lindqvist
Nordic General Manager at Onnec

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