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Avoiding data centre capital project failures

Matt Stansberry, director of Content & Publications, Uptime Institute, discusses the intricacies of investing in data centres.

Uptime Institute Symposium: Middle East taking place December 7 at The Ritz- Carlton, Dubai Marina.
Uptime Institute Symposium: Middle East taking place December 7 at The Ritz- Carlton, Dubai Marina.

For enterprise IT organisations embarking on a data centre capital project - the stakes are undeniably high. Building a new data centre is a massive investment, but also enables or hampers an organisation's IT strategy and capability - affecting an organisation's business performance for years to come.

As more organisations rely on colocation data centre providers, ensuring the design and construction of these projects meets your requirements is critical as well.

With multiple vendors, subcontractors, and typically more than 50 different disciplines involved in any data centre project - structural, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, fuel pumps, networking, and more - it would be remarkable if there are no errors introduced or corner cut during the construction process.

Lapses in construction oversight, planning, and budget can mean that an expensive new data centre facility will fail to meet the owner's requirements, with the end result offering poor performance, limited flexibility, insufficient compute resources, or excess stranded capacity.

Addressing problems as they reveal themselves may delay construction and delay the start of operations and usually requires significant spending. In some cases, the problems continue to hamper operations for the life of the data centre and may eventually require the facility to be replaced prematurely.

Even if the facility should continue operations for its expected life, it may cost more than expected to operate, suffer more downtime incidents, and complicate efforts to introduce new products and services.


Any data centre capital project is subject to complex challenges. Inclement weather, delayed equipment delivery, overwhelmed local resources, slow-moving permitting and approval bureaucracies, lack of availability of public utilities (power, water, and gas), merger or acquisition, or other shift in corporate strategy can delay construction or increase costs. However, capital project teams must prepare for and resolve problems that result from unexpected conditions.

In Uptime Institute's experience delivering more than 1,000 Certifications across the globe, problems in construction are most often attributed to:

  1. Poor integration of complex systems
  2. Lack of thorough commissioning or compressed commissioning schedules
  3. Unapproved or unexamined design changes
  4. Substitution of materials or products

In a number of cases, data centre failures, delays, or cost overruns occur during the construction phase because of misaligned construction incentives or poor contractor performance. In reality, the seeds of both these issues are sown in the earliest phases of the capital project, when design objectives, budgets, contracts and schedules are developed, RFPs and RFIs issued, and the construction team assembled.

These issues arise during construction, commissioning, or even after operations have commenced and may impact cost, schedule, or IT operations. These construction problems often occur because of poor change management processes, inexperienced project teams, misaligned objectives of project participants, or lack of third-party verification.


PREVENTING CONSTRUCTION PROBLEMS

At the project outset, all parties should recognise that owner objectives differ greatly from builder objectives. The owner wants a data centre that best meets cost, schedule, and overall business needs, including data centre availability.

The builder wants to meet project budget and schedule requirements while preserving project margin. Data centre uptime (availability) and operations considerations are usually outside the builder's scope and expertise.

Thus, it is imperative that the project owner-or owner's representatives-devise contract language, processes, and controls that limit the contractors' ability to change or undermine design decisions while making use of the contractors' experience in materials and labour costs, equipment availability, and local codes and practices, which can save money and help construction follow the planned timeline without compromising availability and reliability.

Data centre owners should appoint an experienced owner's representative to properly vet contractors. This representative should review contractor qualifications, experience, staffing, leadership, and communications. Less experienced and cheaper contractors can often lead to quality control problems and design compromises.

Once a design has been finalised, change control processes are essential to managing and reducing risk during the construction phase. For various reasons, many builders, and even some owners, may be unfamiliar with the criticality of change control as it relates to data centre projects. No project will be completely error free; however, good processes and documentation will reduce the number and severity of errors and sometimes make the errors that do occur easier to fix.

Third-party verifications can assure the owner that the project delivered meets the owner's project requirements. Uptime Institute has witnessed third-party verification improve contractor performance. The verifications motivate the contractors to work more diligently, perhaps because verification increases the likelihood that shortcuts or corner cutting will be found and repaired at the contractor's expense.

Matt Stansberry will be speaking at the upcoming Uptime Institute Symposium: Middle East taking place December 7 at The Ritz- Carlton, Dubai Marina. You can learn more about this topic along with on the strategies for deploying data centres that are reliable, efficient, and responsive to the business environment with the ultimate goal of achieving IT Infrastructure Excellence.