Sharing on Data center site selection or evaluation

 

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First off, I have to say neither data center site selection or site evaluation is a specialty of mine or a frequent happenings for me.

I share a few stories with regards to site that I looked at, most of which happened to me when I was in China.

Data Center site selection, and Data Center site evaluation are two distinct processes. The former deals with selection a green field or brown field (usually by a first party, i.e. data center developer/owner type), while the latter deals with evaluating a facility is suitable for use as a colocation data center (usually by a client).

This is a sharing via stories and not on concrete steps or checklist to follow when doing site selection or evaluation. The criteria that I look at are based on the TIA 942 environmental criteria.

 

No such things as a Constant Site Profile

A site will undergo change, albeit most time slowly but sometimes it can be very fast. Like the old data center at west Sydney that was shared, something came along and changes the surroundings which is beyond your control.

A data center site that is suitable when you last reviewed it, however it will change after a day, week, month, year, decade.

tianjin-incident-20150814024919762.png

In China Tianjin city. The Tianjin Binhai New District explosion that happened on 12th August 2015 at 22:50pm local time, the explosion took the lives of 165 souls. It also affected data center facilities around it, some are about 1 to 2km away. Those data centers within this 2km circle includes Tencent, Standard Chartered bank, National Supercomputer centre, China Hewlett Packard. Some data centers that are further away but still within Tianjin are Sohu, 58TongCheng, 21Vianet, China Telecom and China Unicom.

The explosion took place in a dangerous goods warehouse that was built in 2013, which was well before the data centers that are already in Tianjin Binhai New District.

In Singapore, a data center I was well acquainted with 16 years ago is in a small industrial complex with six industrial buildings. It is right next to a big housing estate and about half a mile from the subway station.

Three of the buildings are well suited to be data centers as they have good floor loading factor and pretty good floor-to-ceiling height. The industrial complex suffers 16 years ago when two major tenants moved out of those three buildings that they leased. It was good for the industrial park owner and a couple of data center companies that these spaces became available.

However, this entire industrial complex changed hands three years ago to a REIT, and the new owner plans to covert three building closest to the main road to draw in public crowds with food courts, pedestrians friendly shops,  retail and food and beverage tenants. A big no-no to a data center for high human traffic to come close by. A reassessment of options should already have been done.

And, a criteria important to a MNC, maybe totally unacceptable to another. And it takes time for one to consider the particular country or environment one is in. Two stories came to mine. First is once I was helping to provide consultancy to Gauteng provincial government data center, and they said what sort of criteria should they looked at to enhance their data center. When I read online about the notice they put up at the gate of the data center building, I was surprised to read “no legal or illegal weapon to be brought into the data center building”. Singapore is pretty safe and illegal firearm is nearly impossible to obtain and penalty for carry firearm is minimum life imprisonment here in Singapore. Well, they meet TIA 942 Tier 3 (now call Rated 3) describes a bullet resistant walls, windows, and doors especially for the security/pass exchange room.

Another story on the criteria important to some and unacceptable to another is the being far from an embassy criteria. The conventional thinking is that it will cause human traffic problem if an embassy attracts protesters/sit-ins, while in another country that I visited the embassy area is the most well protected area so one might have to look twice as hard at whether it adds/subtracts points.

A river is definitely a no-no. No 60 years flood history doesn’t mean it will never happen. (http://www.itnews.com.au/news/qld-data-centres-operating-despite-floods-244399)s

 

Whose definition of Green Field

Now, the funniest thing about green field is the land owner or would-be land owner definition of green field. Three years ago, an intermediary who is a good friend was told that a piece of land in Zhejiang is good, it has pros of government approval should be easy and not too far from shanghai (2 hours was mentioned). When I asked about the actual address the day prior to the visit they cannot give the full details and my appreciation of Chinese folks of “not too far” was not honed by then yet. All I had was a future look picture that comprises condominium blocks surrounding a lake and ten of 6-storeys office blocks further behind those blocks. They said this is a conceptual layout, any of the office block can be changed into a data center building if the group I represent is interested.

Set off at 08:30am, we reached the place at 11:15am after circling and calling the county vice governor in charge of investment met us and our car followed him for 20 minutes. So it is nearly 3 hours from Shanghai bund in light traffic. I cannot imagine what sort of travel time during peak hours.

But the biggest surprise was that the land in question, is that the land is not cleared. Meaning, a village with 6 houses full of people sits on that land, ducks, chickens, ploughed vegetable plots and all.

The roads as shown on the conceptual picture is not even approved yet.

A good day was wasted, I reached back the city at 4pm.

It is what I would say, pre-cleared green field. From that point on, I insisted of someone else sending me a photo of the land in question.

Second story. The land in question has been selected by the owner because of all the good points for it to build factory building, worker quarters, warehouse, office blocks, and three data center buildings as it is the right land size and at a good rate. I have told them bluntly why choose that place to have a data center. But, the decision to house three data center buildings within the same plot of land is by the top man, we just have to make it work. Top man says, government approved, utility power and water supply both approved by government, and the government will give grant to offset the initial investment into tri-generation power and cooling plant. The bad? It has two big minuses. First, a river outside along the fence only mere meters away. It has a train track which is no more than 50 meters away with a train passing by every 10 minutes during peak hours. AND the three data center buildings has to be placed along that edge of fence as decided by the power-that-be! So, resistance is futile. But sales is futile as well. Nothing has been sold for 15 months and not much will be by the looks of things.

Tell it as it is, unsuitable. And yet they went ahead. After that when they asked what can they do to improve their chances, advice such as using the river water as backup cooled water is rejected because city has strengthened waterway protection.

 

Brown Field

A IT service company said that they are doing so well that they want to consolidate and move all their co-location customer who they park at other 3rd party data center to one that they want to build. But, I don’t know why but they are fixated about wanting to convert part of an exhibition complex to house data center. The exhibition halls will still be retained and use for big exhibition and events.

No matter how I told them that the high human traffic is not good, they just won’t listen. And there is no place to have backup generators and external fuel storage tanks given the high human traffic.

A few years ago, an industrial property broker brought me to visit an industrial building that is only 10% occupied. She said this building is good, high floor loading, high floor to ceiling height. But there are three big minuses, one is the largest floor plate is such that fire escape of other unit will have to pass through this space to reach the fire escape. So unless you lease the entire floor, you will have the cut through your space with fire escape corridor and let others through your protected data center space! Second it is next to an army base. Last but not least, helicopter flies overhead now and then. Got to check your surroundings. Visit the space more than once.

Actually there is an even worse example than the above shared industrial building type. Warehouse buildings are good as a choice to convert to data center building. BUT only if you have the entire building. There are two data center buildings I know that share the building with existing warehousing type tenant as the building owner cannot terminate the lease with the existing tenant. So the fire risk and high cargo truck traffic is detrimental to the data center businesses that operates in these facilities. It took years for the warehousing tenant lease to run out and the data center operator quickly outbid and got those spaces. I really don’t advice sharing space when come to warehouse type, get the entire space.

Nearly Ready Site

This type of site are plenty across China especially in tier 2 and tier 3 cities.

A building has been built, nearby completed but halted due to some financial or other problem.

This type of site to me, is the worst of them all. Last year (2015), I was brought to a provincial capital city in the western part of China. Three separate data center buildings, two were completed, and one has been in near completion state for 18 months. The company that I work for wants that nearly completed one for reasons not shared with me.

This near completed data center is very close to finishing in terms of physical building itself, with one wall on the chiller plant room opened to move in chilled-water chillers. However, one chiller sit half-in and half-out, so it was under rain and in the open for full 18 months. Most chilled water chiller type are indoor unit and this one is no exception.

One way we counter this risk is to ask the original owner of these chillers (fortunately the government agency that owns the building) to get the manufacturer to re-test these chillers and give warranty.

At the data center halls, raised floor are up on 20% of them, electrical cabling are not completed and we cannot assess how much was done and since they were not fully completed, we will not be sure if they will all work together if the remaining works are completed.

This type is the worst. Half done, untested, with no knowing if all the materials that are supposed to be in are all there after 18 months. It will cost more to put in the rest.

And as we engaged a quantity surveyor to check through the design, the delivered M&E equipment, cablings, while more unknowns are known but the list of unknowns will still be worrying to us. This evaluation project took 6 months and it still leaves me uncomfortable to proceed any further. I have said early on in this site evaluation that it be better to choose a green field in that city and I am not wrong 6 months later after spending money and time.

 

Existing Data Center

This one took place in Australia. An old data center building in west Sydney is looking for new owner. But the full story was not shared on why they are selling it. Upon visiting the site, we learnt that the bank that owns it will decommission this 25 years old site when their newest and latest is ready in a couple of months. Everything is old there. To take on new customer, new owner will need to completely retrofit it and put in all brand new M&E equipment. It is directly opposite a hardware superstore, which has lots of woods, paints, basically flammable stuff. It raises the fire risk for this site. This hardware superstore is about 10 years old when this street was more quiet and tranquil.

Beside the fire risk of its neighbor across the road, I think there is no good reason to buy a very old site without any tenant. It will be more cost effective to develop a brown site or green field.

Some Basic Lessons Learnt

You can get a full checklist by searching for one online and adapting / add with your organisation’s experience and key concerns.

Just a few points:

  1. Be inquisitive
  2. Ask around
  3. Take pictures
  4. Ask for detailed information – address, current owner, tenancy
  5. Authorities approval for land, building, power, water
  6. Look at who are the neighbors, is their business a source of fire risk, is there a potential competitor looking to build nearby
  7. It pays to get someone local to get the key information

 

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Sharing on Data center site selection or evaluation

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