These days, we hear almost weekly from current and potential clients looking to develop large scale data center campuses. Given the immense expected growth in data centers to support a domestic and international surge in edge computing, AI, content creation, and an even greater increase in digital learning and remote work, this is certainly no surprise. Growth is also being fueled by companies increasing their use of colocation and cloud in response to pandemic issues since colos and cloud operators can tightly manage related risks and keep operating.

In most cases, these developers have a unique piece of land in a strategic geography, with abundant natural resource traits, climate or temperature related benefits, a favorable agreement with the site’s municipality, and/or immediate access to significant power sources. It is important to assess these properties from a variety of perspectives - including understanding the requirements of large cloud, colocation, and build-to-suit operators; designing, commissioning, and migrating to large scale data centers for enterprises and institutions, considering a sustainable design.

Due diligence

To begin, a consultant/designer starts performing an initial due diligence study to understand and evaluate any potential “red flags” that would automatically disqualify a property. Following this effort with a master planning exercise, and once the land has been successfully vetted, the development team will typically begin work with a real estate company to market the proposed facility. Currently we have seen multiple organizations seeking to create mission critical facilities, in various stages of development all over the US, and encompassing hundreds of megawatts of power over hundreds of acres

As this is currently quite a competitive space, development clients are all looking for that “edge” to make their campus more attractive to the large-scale end users they seek. As most large data center operators are keenly focused on energy usage, greenhouse effects, and sustainability driven by government mandates and their own corporate goals, some of our projects are exploring either completely off-grid solutions or utilizing the most efficient and innovative technologies to drive a sustainable operation.

The key is looking at your property through the perspective of the data center operator, whether you intend to operate it yourself or bring in a partner to do so. We also look at it from the perspective of the end user client/tenant, tailoring capabilities for the operator that enhance marketability to specific client types, and markets.

Main factors

Here are some of the main factors that need to be evaluated and considered before committing to the facility type and moving to the detailed design phase.

  • Size and Suitability - Is there enough acreage for a multi facility campus? Are there physical site restrictions that reduce usable acreage? Typically, large cloud, colocation, and build-to-suit companies look to build at scale. How many buildings can be fit on the parcel? An acre/critical MW ratio of 1:1 is a good general guide to help find out if your property is large enough to meet the capacity requirements of the tenant or independent operator.
  • Location – Is the location attractive to the largest hyperscalers, build-to-suit, and colocation companies, and in their current site selection plans? Alternatively, is it better suited for a smaller, secondary, edge provider, or perhaps even a Bitcoin miner? Is it accessible to an airport and a population center with skilled workers? Is elevation a factor in equipment performance and overall cost? Are there any natural disaster, or civil or seismic issues? Where is the 100 and 500 year flood plain relative to the site, and are there any physical security issues that may be a deterrent?
  • Power Cost and Availability – is their sufficient power readily available today, not three years from now. What is the cost? Is it on or near the site, and how far is the closest substation?
  • Fiber and Connectivity – are there multiple fiber providers and diverse fiber pathways available to serve the site?
  • Natural Resources – Is a substantial water source readily available? Are there other unique resources that can be utilized (natural gas)?
  • Sustainability – Is off-grid power part of your planning? Are wind and solar power available and an option? Do you wish to utilize new energy efficient technologies that will affect the design master plan and land issues? What is your intended “Power Profile”? This is defined as how green the potential power sources can be over several years, through a mix of traditional and green solutions. This is increasingly a requirement of companies to meet their goals of becoming carbon neutral.
  • Incentives – Is the property, or some portion of it, in an Opportunity Zone? Does the municipality have any rapid approval programs to expedite the permitting process?
  • Usage and Competition – Who do you see as primary users? Bitcoin companies? Hyperscaler? Industrial? Enterprise? Are there many competitors in the area, which could be a positive and a negative? Can there be other building types on the same property?
  • Geography and Weather – These are important factors and can contribute to a more efficient design.

Other decisions

Though there are other items to evaluate and consider, these are the key factors that make or break your development in the early stages, before investing too much. Once these items have been evaluated, and the master plan effort “green-lighted,” there are several other important decisions to make about the eventual design itself. These will include:

  • Power topologies
  • Cooling schemes
  • Data hall layouts
  • Scalability
  • Number and capacity of infrastructure blocks
  • Critical power vs. total power
  • Desired Watts per rack for user type