Standards are typically best practices that have been formally agreed upon within an industry that provide customers a level of assurance that, the product they are purchasing meets a prescribed level of measurement for performance, safe operations, etc. Customers rely on standards as a method of performing comparative analysis on competing suppliers. By providing a common method of comparison, standards help insulate customers from the need to make their decisions solely on the basis of the claims of a provider. Unfortunately when evaluating data center providers, the customers often must navigate between the ideas of what is real and a vendor’s standard- inspired puffery
Just Because They Say So Doesn’t Make it True
With data centers, the largest “phantom” application of a standard can be found with the Tier system that was originally developed by the Uptime Institute in collaboration with dozens of large enterprise users. Comprised of four escalating “Tiers” that prescribed the physical componentry required to deliver specific levels of mechanical and electrical reliability, the system became recognized as the de facto standard for reliable data center design. Paradoxically, very few data center providers have elected to have their designs and facilities actually certified by the Institute itself. Providers who have avoided having their claims validated by the developer of the specification itself are guilty of misrepresenting themselves to prospective customers. These self-proclamations diminish the value of the standard itself by demoting it from a recognized reference point to a mere guideline that is open to liberal interpretation. As a result, there are countless numbers of companies whose mission critical applications are supported by data centers whose reliability is, shall we say, undocumented.
“Caveat Emptor or let the buyer beware, an advice of the ancient Greek’s to wary prospective customers, holds true in the world of data center standards compliance”
You Did Test My Data Center, Didn’t You?
Commissioning consists of five levels, with levels four and five being the most important for our discussion here. Level 4 commissioning consists of fully testing each component of the data center’s equipment to ensure that each piece operates as required. Level 5 commissioning is the essential component of the commissioning process since all of the site’s systems are tested on an integrated basis at both peak loads and in a variety of failure scenarios to ensure that all of the data center’s systems work as designed.
The functional design of a data center is intricately intertwined with its ability to complete the full five levels of the commissioning process. Many data center alternatives use a single MEP backplane. Although these are commonly used, the architectural designs with “future growth phases” based on this concept are can complete only the first four levels of the commissioning process. This is due to the fact that the failure mode testing scenarios required in Level 5 cannot be performed since turning off the power brings down all of the attached data centers during expansion. The other alternative in backplane design is to use discrete backplanes for each data center. In this structure each data center operates independently from its companions. As a result, new data centers can be fully Level 5 commissioned since simulating a power failure for testing does not negatively impact any existing data hall. Thus, the backplane structure of a data center solution determines its ability to undergo a complete commissioning process when expansion is necessary. Failure to complete a full Level 5 commissioning process is analogous to purchasing a product that is only 90% complete.
In many instances, standards provide insurance for both the customer and the site’s operations personnel. Over the past few years, the intense need to maximize the uptime of a facility has been used by many providers to justify an increasing level of “hot work”. This means that many operations that would normally be performed in a non-powered environment are now done on live components. These actions are both dangerous and against the law.
One of the most common by-products of these instances where work is performed on energized equipment is a phenomenon referred to as arc flash. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines arc flash as, “the sudden release of electrical energy through the air when a high voltage gap exists and there is breakdown between conductors”. For those unfortunate enough to be anywhere near an arc flash they can see heat reach 35,000 degrees—four times hotter than the sun’s surface. Those same workers can also be exposed to molten shrapnel, and burns, vision and hearing loss can be common physical results of the aftermath.
Both the National Electrical Code, and the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) in their 70E standard have defined guidelines to prevent incidents of arc flash. From the prospective of a data center customer, most providers will not proactively provide information as to whether actions like common equipment maintenance are performed on energized equipment. Lack of required labeling for arc flash regulations should alert prospective buyers to providers who are not compliant with the latest policies for health and safety. Caveat Emptor (let the buyer beware) was the advice of the ancient Greek’s to wary prospective customers, in the world of data center standards compliance; it’s still good advice.