The hidden obsolescence issues with collocation data centers

Published on 19th December 2009 by Hughes

I've been involved in the design, construction and operation of collocation data centers for the last 15 years. During that time I've seen tremendous changes in the way space is marketed and sold. In the last several years, I've become increasingly aware of two principal challenges facing collocation data center operators:

1. The age of support equipment in many of the data centers

2. The power and cooling design densities of most of the collocation data centers

Most collocation data centers is use today were designed and built from 1997 - 2002. This was the height of the collocation data center boom. These data centers are now anywhere from 8 to 12 years old and have UPS systems and cooling systems that reflect the technologies that were in use at the time. Most are not very energy efficient and have levels of redundancy and reliability that are significantly below those of current data center designs.
That means that primary infrastructure supporting clients is getting close to the end of its useful life. Obviously different systems have different useful lives, but most of them are in the 15 to 20 year range. Upgrading these systems will be very difficult and in some cases impossible. Changing out UPS systems, batteries and cooling systems while still keeping the clients on line and with the levels of redundancy that colo's are contractually obligated to maintain is going to be a challenge.

To add to the challenge, most collocation data centers from that era were designed for 80 to 100 watts per square foot or less. This compares to the 200 watts per square foot or more that most data centers today are designed for. Since most collocation data center space today is sold based on power densities per square foot, these legacy data centers are faced with some tough choices. Either sell the entire space at lower power densities or leave a portion of the space unused since there is insufficient power and cooling to support it.

Upgrading the power and cooling to support higher densities is a logical consideration. Practically, it's often extremely difficult if not impossible to do this. Some of the challenges include:

Is there sufficient capacity from the utility - Going from 100 to 200 watts per square foot requires the utility to double the size of the feed into the facility.

Is there space for all of the additional support equipment - Doubling the capacity nearly doubles the amount of space required for support equipment depending on the design. Most data centers don't have the space either inside or outside the facility for the additional equipment.

Can the existing chilled water piping support the increase in density - As you might expect, most of the existing chilled water piping is sized to accommodate the design load and won't support significant increases in the cooling capacity.

Will the raised floor height support the increased cooling loads - Most of the legacy collocation data centers were designed with 24 inch raised flooring. Will this support a significant increase in cooling loads or do you have to go to supplemental cooling systems?

While some owners are proactively upgrading their data centers and adding capacity, many seem to be ignoring the issues. We have walked through numerous collocation data centers recently in looking for space for a client. All of them had support equipment that was 6 to 12 years old. Not one of them had any plans in place to replace or upgrade any of the major support equipment, with the exception of batteries. The useful life of their support equipment seemed to increase exponentially the more I questioned them about it.

If this trend continues, I could see a two tiered pricing structure for collocation data centers. One for newer data centers with power densities that support what customers are asking for. A second tier for legacy data centers whose infrastructure can't support the rack loads that customers are now looking for.

Another possibility is that data centers would be considered fully leased based on power availability, not data center space. This could result in some data centers that have half of their raised floor space vacant. Considering that most collocation data centers aren't particularly energy efficient already, this could make the problem even worse.

I'm not sure what the final outcome will be, but I am confident that this is going to be an issue that comes up more frequently as data centers age. Before making a decision on leasing data center space, customers should look at the age of the support equipment, the densities the facility can support and the energy efficiency of the support systems. Leasing space in a data center that will have to be upgraded while you are occupying your space, may not be a wise decision.

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Ron Hughes, President of California Data Center Design Group has been involved in the design, construction and operation of data centers for over 25 years. His firm has completed over 3 million square feet of projects in the US, Europe, Asia, South America, Mexico and the Middle East. Subscribe ... More