February 2016


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Kevin CallahanEMAIL INTERVIEWKevin Callahan and Ken Sinclair

Kevin Callahan is a product owner and evangelist for Alerton, a Honeywell business. He has 39 years of experience in the building control technologies field, including control systems design and commissioning, facilities management and user training.

Contact him at kevin.callahan@honeywell.com

Data centers require advanced building automation

Monitoring and control of cooling and power systems is crucial for Internet reliability. All of those computers generate self-damaging heat. Keeping the servers cool and happy is critical.

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SinclairHow important is the data center market in the world of building controls?

Callahan:  Building management systems – BMS – largely came to prominence over the past several decades for their role in helping building owners and operators of all types reduce energy costs. That’s still a crucial function – in both new construction and retrofits – but one of the hottest BMS markets in 2016 is monitoring and control of critical facilities. Notable are hospitals and data centers, both of which require reliable service around the clock and year-around.

With the explosion in cloud computing, e-commerce and social media, the demand for data centers is white hot! Market researchers at the Report Buyer industry intelligence firm predict the worldwide data center market will grow at nearly 10% compounded annual growth through 2019. This presents a huge business opportunity to all of us in the building controls field – from manufacturers to consulting specifying engineers and beyond.

SinclairWhat are the crucial roles for BMS in data centers?

Callahan:  When I talk to friends about Alerton being involved in massive data center projects around the world, they instantly assume the focus is on reducing energy use. But if you’re a data center professional, energy costs aren’t your biggest concern. The one thing a data center manager cares most about is ensuring facility uptime – the server farm must have near perfect reliability to ensure websites are available any time of day or night and in any season.

Data center reliability largely depends on two things: effective dissipation of waste heat and clean electricity.

A massive data center has thousands of servers, sometimes housed in buildings up to half a million square feet. All of those computers generate self-damaging heat. Keeping the servers cool and happy is critical. Unlike in an office building where an out-of-whack HVAC results in cranky workers, in a data center, managing the interior heat adequately is a life and death matter for the computers.

Whether it’s an enterprise data center down the hall in your company, or a massive server farm a continent away, data centers rely on their BMS to monitor numerous data points in their facility – for such things as spot temperatures throughout the building to the operating status of all HVAC systems. You can bet when the BMS sounds an alarm that temperature has gone out of spec that a technician is immediately on the problem to keep the computers cool and happy.

The second mission critical need in a data center is clean electricity – meaning power that meets tight specs for voltage, amperage, phase, etc. Servers are finicky electronic devices, so the electricity must be spot-on. Data center managers use their BMS to monitor the electricity coming into the building from the power grid, as well as its distribution throughout the server racks. In the large data centers I’ve worked on, up to two-thirds of the BMS alarms are devoted to the power systems. As with the HVAC alarms, a BACnet-enabled BMS can annunciate an alarm any time the specialized electricity sensors detect the electricity isn’t within tolerances.

SinclairHow about energy savings – how does that factor into data center building automation?

Callahan:  I had said earlier that saving energy isn’t the biggest concern in data centers, but as a key operating cost, it is still important. The key metric that data center operators and designers focus on is power usage effectiveness. PUE is the ratio of the facility’s total energy used to the energy consumed by the IT equipment. Their intent is to minimize the power used for anything other than the servers. Unlike other buildings, they don’t have to worry about keeping workers comfortable.

As in other facility types, an appropriately appointed BMS enables data center managers to monitor trend logs on energy usage in order to figure out places to squeeze out more savings.

SinclairWhat are some examples of notable data centers Alerton has been involved with?

Callahan:  We’ve been involved in everything from the enterprise data center to the humongous data farms that power the Internet’s biggest websites. For example, our controls are in Facebook's new data center in Lulea, Sweden. The social media giant chose the site in part for its location near the Arctic Circle, which provides naturally cold air. Alerton controls help manage the sophisticated ventilation system that takes advantage of that cold air, along with monitoring the electricity. We’ve also been involved in Microsoft’s energy management control system for its sprawling corporate campus in Redmond, Washington. And, we’re playing a role in an innovative project in which waste heat is harvested from a data center across the street to help heat the Amazon office complex in downtown Seattle.


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