Integrated Design Group on Designing Campus Data Centers

By: Robert Stein, AIA, LEED AP, Principal

When working with colleges and universities to help them increase capacity in their data centers, a different set of conditions and restrictions are posed than exist in the other types of data center design opportunities we encounter.   Integrated Design Group (ID) has been engaged in existing conditions analysis, programming, and design for data centers on a number of university campuses.  These include MIT, Harvard, Brown, Tufts, UConn and the University of California at Santa Barbara.  The history for most of these data centers is similar and we find many elements in common among them.  This is because many were built initially in the 1960s and ‘70s, and are located in basements or the lower levels of buildings built during that era.  Common among these data centers is that:

  1. the space layouts for servers and other equipment on the floor have grown helter-skelter (this precludes hot aisle/cold aisle server configurations);
  2. the height under raised floor is limited, which impacts the ability of the HVAC system to cool the space;
  3. the mechanical equipment is old and near the end of its useful life;
  4. the raised floor is so old that parts are no longer available;
  5. the electrical systems have limited reliability and the design of the existing systems is such that maintenance is either limited or non-existent due to the inability of the systems to be shut down while preserving continuous server operation;  and, lastly,
  6. dollars for updating facilities are limited while use is growing quickly.  This is particularly true because historically campuses had many decentralized data centers.  These used to appear in closets all over campuses to serve the individual research of principal investigators whose money purchased the equipment.   Recently those systems have become too robust to remain in the hands of those investigators.

Although the upgrades for each data center are unique to the circumstance, they usually require modular scalable solutions that enable the institutions to replace equipment and expand capacity over time.  This is due to budgetary constraints and uncertain growth of need.  In the process, mechanical, electrical, fire protection and architectural systems (and in some cases layouts) are modified.

ID’s best completed example is the Watson Center for Information Technology at Brown University.  There, we prepared a master plan for a ten-year data center update.  This was developed collaboratively with us and both the Information Technology and the Facilities departments.  From the study, the project rolled directly into an implementation phase encompassing the first few stages, proposed in the master plan design.  The work includes a significant reconfiguration of all areas of the 7,000 square feet of raised floor except the existing rack areas – and even there, the study suggests a plan for racks that migrates from an existing apparently haphazard arrangement into one that will have a hot aisle/cold aisle disposition.   In the end, the facility is to conform to Uptime Tier III requirements, with redundant systems and compartmentalization.  In the first phase of the work, we relocated offices, formed new work areas and a network operation center separated from the computer equipment, added a staging area, and designed a new break room– all within the footprint of the original data center.  Because the existing piping did not allow individual computer room air conditioners to be shut off for maintenance, we designed a new chilled water loop, under the raised floor, where none had existed.   We alleviated limitations on airflow under the floor by moving fiber connectivity to a new system of cable tray above the computer equipment.  Two new computer room air conditioners were installed to replace existing and to support the new configuration.  The addition of one UPS unit is the first phase of turning the electrical system into a fully redundant one.  The team replaced 90% of the raised floor (where not under existing equipment), changed out the entire ceiling and all of the lighting, and provided new finishes– the new walls are prefabricated so that construction would not generate dust.

Thus, ID implemented the first phase of a scalable modular design within budget, while operation of the data center remained un-interrupted.  The teamwork among owner, user, designers and constructors was instrumental in the overall success of this data center renovation and upgrade.

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Brown University Watson Data Center

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