So You Want to Visit a Data Center...

Who gets to visit data centers?

Congratulations! You have been invited to tour a data center – a purpose-built facility designed to hold massive amounts of computer equipment. Unlike other corporate facilities, access to these buildings is very exclusive. Very rarely are guests allowed inside a functioning data center. Typically, only those that need to perform work at the facility are allowed entrance. For many, data center uptime represents a critical component to keeping businesses up and running.  Contingency plans focused on data center unavailability tend to be expensive to execute, not plans a company wants to use. Therefore, great care is exercised as to who can enter and what can be seen while inside a data center.

What to wear

The environment of a data center can vary from a typical office space to a very industrial warehouse. If the tour includes a walk through the racked IT equipment rooms, also called the white space or data hall, temperatures can swing from 65˚F to 105˚F in a very small distance. The best plan is to have a jacket on hand in case the tour or discussion occurs in one of these areas.

Plan to walk a substantial distance. Most data centers are single story structures consisting of 200,000+ square feet of space. Some data centers are built on raised floors which are used to aid in air distribution. When walking on a raised floor you may hear some moderate creaking as well as see many perforations in the floor tiles. Flat soled shoes with some tread and covered toes are typical footwear for this environment. Avoid any clothing that is loose or could be caught on a door, rack or containment curtain. Depending on the tour areas, state of construction and local safety rules, safety glasses, hard hats and closed toed shoes may be required. Check with your tour guide or contact before arriving for the tour.

What will you see, hear, and feel

Data Centers are broken into purpose-built rooms. Certain rooms provide communications, electrical distribution, onsite power generation, cooling, key equipment storage, operations areas, admin areas and facilities shops. Three rooms of particular interest on a tour are the UPS (uninterruptible power supply) rooms, central plant operations, and standby electrical power (SEP) rooms.

The UPS – the lifeblood of a data center – typically occupy many rooms with a stored energy room nearby.  There are three main types of energy storage systems used as UPS: lead acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries and flywheels, or kinetic technology. Lead acid batteries make for the best tours as they can be see-through battery systems that need to be watered from time to time. You’ll notice the battery room tends to be a sealed from the rest of the data center and has its own containment system, which includes a special fire detection system and unique firefighting equipment. Flywheel UPS rooms will be recognizable due to the high-pitched noise they make.  

The central plant operations, if applicable, is an exciting part of the tour. In the central plant, all waste heat generated by the IT equipment is moved outside of the facility. The movement of this heat can be done by using air, refrigerants, water or any combination of the three. This will typically be a very noisy room so questions should be asked before entering the room or after exiting.

The SEP systems, generators, or “gensets” can occupy several rooms and can take on many forms. Some data centers use diesel gensets that are stored outside in weather tight containers. Other data centers have specific separate buildings that hold the generators and their associated fuel source. Some data centers even have special rooms inside the building that have openings to bring in fresh, cool air and vent exhaust gas and heat when the generators are operational. If you are touring through the SEP, be aware that this equipment can automatically start at any time in response to the slightest utility interruption. Most diesel gensets are able to ramp up and start delivering emergency backup power to the facility in under 10 seconds. Regardless of the type, gensets are in place to power the data center for long periods of time in the event of a failure of the primary power source, which can be the power grid or other onsite power sources.

Dos and Don’ts

Do ask questions. Your tour guide of the data center should provide a good understanding of the importance of the data center environment to the business or its clients. Feel free to ask any questions; however, don’t expect an answer to all of them. Questions around staffing levels, production vs. backup, levels of current redundancy, UPS run time and security systems in place tend to be sensitive and confidential in nature and may not be answered unless you are a prospective client.  

Don’t touch or lean against anything. For one, there are numerous safety mechanisms placed throughout a data center that are designed to be easily accessible for emergency shut down of all electricity in a room. Secondly, humans have the ability to disperse a static electric charge to anything we touch, which could have catastrophic impact on the nearby equipment. So, no leaning or touching allowed!

Do be aware of your surroundings. Situations can change quickly in a data center. Incidents in a data center can develop and evolve quickly. Additionally, data center operations teams may have live or simulated drills at any time. It’s not uncommon for a drill to occur and people may not be aware it is a drill until it is over.  

Don’t expect to see all rooms. Dependent on local safety protocols, electrical rooms may only allow entry to qualified electricians.

As with any tour, stay safe and be aware of your surroundings. Enjoy your visit as one of the few individuals who is invited to see the inside of these mission critical environments.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn by Diode Ventures professional, Mike McDaniel.

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