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30 Years of Data Centre Design and Construction

With 2012 done and dusted and 2013 moving along at a lightening pace it occurs to me that Future-tech has been designing and building IT facilities for 30 years now. It is with this in mind I feel it would be a good time to look back at what’s changed (and what hasn’t) since 1982.

Future-tech’s earliest projects came from providing the close controlled environments required by mainframe computers built by the likes of Concurrent Computer Corporation (then part of Perkin Elmer).  Most hardware was free-standing with only the telecoms equipment installed into racks.

When cabinets were first introduced they exhausted warm air out through the top and were placed in rows all facing the same way, known to many as “row of soldiers”.  Conditioned air was supplied through a ventilated ceiling and extracted through the floor with the whole room kept at a constant 20°C and 50% relative humidity.  Tolerances were very tight, sometimes as close as +/- 0.25°C on temperature and +/- 2.5% on R.H.   As “servers” became the norm, discharging hot air straight out the back, the hot air from one row of cabinets went straight into the intake of the row behind causing over-heating problems which led to the adoption of the “hot aisle” / “cold aisle” layout we recognise today.

Power densities have grown and grown to the point where direct liquid cooling, originally developed in the ‘60’s for “super-computers”, is now being considered for servers, although for most data centres the cooling medium through the IT equipment is still air.  We still generally maintain the air supply to the equipment at around 20°C (the cold aisle temperature) but physically segregate the hot and cold aisles, allowing the hot aisle to be much warmer and greatly improving energy efficiency.  Close control of humidity is also less of a requirement now that paper tape has long gone, the accepted window of operation is now 20-80% RH.

On the power side UPS’s are much more compact and their energy efficiency, particularly at partial loads, has improved enormously.  Batteries are still mainly of the lead-acid type and generators haven’t really changed that much.

The biggest change is probably in data transmission speeds.  In the ‘80’s most data cabling, at least in the facilities we built, was copper, with fibre-optic technology still in its infancy.  Today’s 100Gigabit Ethernet is 10,000 times faster than the 10BASE-T twisted pairs we used to install, allowing such essentials of modern life as video streaming and online gaming.

1982 was also the year that the first cellular telephone network licences were granted in the UK although it was 1985 by the time the first networks, Vodafone and BT Cellnet (now O2), went live.  I was heavily involved in the roll-out of the Vodafone network and interestingly the cooling of the base stations was by fresh air free-cooling which is of course enjoying a revival of late.

As a company Future-tech has grown steadily and over the last three decades we have worked on many hundreds of data centres, including sites in most European countries and a few further afield.  We still concentrate on our core business, of building resilient, reliable and efficient ICT environments, and we still have a number of clients and staff members who have been with us since the ‘80’s.

So here’s to the next 30 years: I’ve noticed that whereas even the biggest facilities in the 80s were called “computer rooms” the terminology has changed and now they are all called “data centres”, but call them whatever you like, we’ll still build them and they are here to stay.

Over the coming months we will be producing a number of blogs that look in more detail at how some elements and operations have changed and what impact that has had on the data centre industry.

We’ll be covering the following:

  • UPS solutions and efficiencies
  • Humidity and temperature control – what’s changed and what are the benefits
  • The emergence of metrics such as PUE and WUE
  • Global networks, the internet and our dependency on data centres

Writer bio: My name is Frank Wilman and I was one of the founders of Future-tech back in 1982. I worked on my first “data centre” in 1973 and have design and installed almost every cooling solution available over the years. My passion is mechanical cooling systems as they give us an opportunity to be truly innovative and continually push the boundaries of resilience and efficiency.