The Art of the Data Center: A Look Inside the World's Most Innovative and Compelling Computing Environments

Posted on by Ben Rothke

At first glance, The Art of the Data Center: A Look Inside the World's Most Innovative and Compelling Computing Environments appears like a standard coffee table book with some great visuals and photos of various data centers throughout the world.  Once you get a few pages into the book, you see it is indeed not a light-read coffee table book, rather an insightful book where some of the brightest minds in the industry share their insights on data center design and construction.

The book takes a holistic view of how world-class data centers are designed and built.  Many of the designers were able to start with a greenfield approach without any constraints; while others were limited by physical restrictions.   

Author Douglas Alger is a data center architect at Cisco (Cisco is highlighted in the book in chapter 6) and has reached out to his peers at 17 other firms to share their insights.  While Alger’s his other two books Grow a Greener Data Center and Build the Best Data Center Facility for Your Business were much more technical, this is more of a middle-ground title.

Some of the firms profiled in the book are Citi, Digital Realty Trust (who run the world’s largest data center in Chicago), eBay, Facebook, IBM, Intel and Yahoo!.

 One of the interesting things about hearing 18 different viewpoints, both from the US and Europe-based firms, is that it shows there is not just one way to build a data center.  Fundamental data center components such as raised floors are reconsidered in some of the data centers in the book.  From UPS, to cooling systems and more, Alger details how the nuances of various data centers have influenced their design.

It is an unfortunate reality that many expensive data center builds and expansions fail.    The book profiles those that have succeeded, and it is hoped the reader will take the advice to heart in their build and design.

The book is written in an interview style, where Alger asked the designers various question on how their came to their design, the rationale behind it, what their strategy was, what constraints they ran into, and more

The book highlights a broad range of data centers; from those built into a century old church in Spain, a former Swedish underground military bunker renovated into a modern data center with artificial daylight, manmade waterfalls and submarine engines providing standby power, to those powered by all solar energy.

Many of the data centers that he showcases are designed in order to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Energy Star certified.  LEED is a rating systems for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of green buildings, homes and neighborhoods, created by the US Green Building Council (USGBC).   It should be noted that as of now, the USGBC hasn’t set specific criteria for data center LEED certification.

An important point about LEED made in the book is that for those designers that are thinking about LEED certification, it must be done in the design stage and not as an addendum. Obtaining LEED certification must start at design and end with a formal certification after project completion.  It was noted that consulting with a qualified LEED professional or consulting firm at the start of the planning process is a must.

As noted, the book showcases many different aspects and often counterintuitive notions of data center design.  One of the most significant is ACT, Inc., a nonprofit that runs the ACT test – a college admissions and placement test taken by more than 1.3 million high school graduates every year, who decided to runs their active and backup data centers in Iowa City, Iowa just 5 miles apart.  The book details the designer’s rationale behind that.  Similar case studies are detailed in the book.

One of the major methods in the book used to reduce power consumption and cost is via the use of virtualization, which many of the data centers have used and optimized.

One topic lacking in the book is that Alger did not ask detailed questions around the physical security of the buildings.    Why power, UPS, flooring and the like are critical to the efficacy of a data center; physical security components such as mantraps, access control systems, bollards, surveillance and the like are necessary to ensure all of the previous design items are not placed at risk. 

One of the questions he asked every designer is if they could go back and design the data center all over again, what; if anything would they do different.  Surprisingly, everyone one of them said that they put a lot of planning in and there was nothing major they would change.  Most of the designers did though say each data center had small items though could have been revisited to make the center better.  Bu most agreed that many of them are so minor in some respects, that it would not be meaningful to go through them. 

An interesting point the data venter architect at Syracuse University stated is that one of the things they did in constructing their data center was to not necessarily be driven by rules of thumb or best practices.  Rather they looked at their own requirements and how they could best optimize everything that they could in the design of the facility. 

One common metric used throughout the book is power usage effectiveness (PUE).  It is a measure of how efficiently a computer data center uses energy; specifically, how much energy is used by the computing equipment, as opposed to cooling and other data center overhead.  The lower the number, closest to 1.0, the more of its power is used for computing.

Poor data center planning leads to poor use of valuable capital, can significantly  increase operational expense and obviate any computation gains.  Many organizations get overwhelmed on the design and focus far too much on speed and power, without taking a larger holistic view of their data center needs. 

For those looking for guidance on how to design a world-class data center, The Art of the Data Center: A Look Inside the World's Most Innovative and Compelling Computing Environments should be the place you start.


Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

critical infrastructure

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