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18.05.2018

Commissioning part one: A test drive for the data centre

The commissioning process is more important than ever given the growing complexity and increasing use of automation software in data centers.

Commissioning is a vital part of the process of turning a building shell, with its mechanical and electrical equipment into a fully functioning data centre that supports the load for which it was designed.

Definitions vary, a problem in and of itself, but Schneider Electric has a relatively clean and concise description: “Commissioning is the process that reviews and tests a data center’s physical infrastructure design as a holistic system in order to assure the highest level of reliability”.

The commissioning process has been likened to taking a car out for a pre-purchase test drive. The comparison stands up to some degree but might be more accurate if 20 different auto-parts makers, as well as third-party engineers and consultants, assembled the car on the customer’s driveway first. And then by test drive we mean put it through all imaginable scenarios to try and break it.

Commissioning is also presented as an insurance policy of sorts against failure rather than being intrinsic to the design and build of a new site. You can get away without insurance but it’s not recommended.

Similarly some data centre operators still skip some parts of the commissioning process in favour of a shorter build time and potentially lower (upfront at least) costs. But shortening the commissioning phase in this way could prove a false economy in the long term.

Commissioning hasn’t always been part of the data centre build process. At one time individual equipment suppliers simply demonstrated – via a start-up process – that their specific devices operated as promised. The contractor then issued a certificate to that effect and the supplier was able to get paid.

The problem with this approach was that at no point was there a requirement to see how specific equipment performed as part of an integrated system. “Twenty years ago in the North American market commissioning started off as an enhanced start-up to vendors specifications and plans and specs. You might be brought in a week before the facility was supposed to be operational,” says commissioning expert Terry Gillick, senior vice president, Primary Integration Solutions.

Operators eventually learnt from experience that – as we have pointed out in previous articles (https://www.future-tech.co.uk/data-centre-csi-investigating-facility-downtime/) – downtime is rarely down to the failure of one piece of equipment but a cascade of contributory factors.

The modern commissioning process was developed against that backdrop as a way to ensure that individual pieces of equipment operated as promised but also crucially worked as an interconnected system.

Overview:

Commissioning is usually considered to be part of the final implementation phase of the data centre design and build process. Commissioning often formally begins after the physical infrastructure systems have been delivered to site, assembled, installed, and started up but the feedback from many experts – including Future-tech and Primary Integration – is to begin the commissioning planning process as soon as possible. “Commissioning has evolved now to what I describe as full life-cycle commissioning. That process starts at the schematic design stage until turnover to operations at a minimum,” says Gillick.

Commissioning usually covers a number of steps and processes. These include:

– Planning and investment – Commissioning should begin well ahead of the delivery of the physical equipment and should involve all of the main stakeholders in the design and build process. Working out how much to invest in the commissioning process depends on the type, age, location and the services supported by the site.

– Commissioning agent – Data center owners can choose to hire a fully independent commissioning agent or perhaps look to the design engineer or the construction company to fulfill the role. The agent should be appointed early in the design/build process.

– Scripting and testing – Scripting provides a roadmap and framework for the testing of all the main data centre components. The script should also be used as way to record of all the test results. According to Schneider Electric testing should include every piece of equipment and involve  ‘executing a sequenced failure followed by a restart and return-to-stable operation’. There are usually up to five levels of testing from level 1 factory start up to Level 5 Integrated System Test that validates that all of the systems work together as designed. The involvement of the commissioning agent in testing can take up to 60 days.

Ongoing engagement

Aside from acting as insurance policy against failure, commissioning has other important benefits that extend through the life of the facility. For example, Uptime Institute argues that commissioning should be a continuous process. The documents created during commissioning should be used as a benchmark for managing changes and trends in the data centre. Commissioning specialists such as Primary Integration also provide ongoing operations and maintenance consulting working alongside facilities management teams.

Adhering to sustainability standards such as LEED can also extend the commissioning processes according to Gillick. “If those sustainable elements are in place then we probably will stay with the facility for another year and come back before the warranties expire,” he says.

Challenges

Despite the benefits that commission brings, there are also a number of challenges to consider. These include:

– Commissioning can be extremely expensive and organizationally challenging. It usually requires staff from different departments to work together under pressure.

– The commissioning team is often under a lot of pressure to complete the process quickly as the operations phase shouldn’t actually begin until the facility is fully commissioned.

– The majority of the problems discovered during commissioning are to do with automation according to Gillick. “We have driven a lot of the mechanical failures out of the process. Where we find the main challenges are on the building automation side. The automation systems are the last to be installed and touch every single piece of equipment,” he says.

– Skills shortages. The recent boom in data center construction has also left the industry facing a shortage of skilled engineers for processes such as commissioning.

Cost benefit analysis

Commissioning is an important but also an expensive process. But if it results in less failures and downtime then that investment is obviously worthwhile. One way to evaluate whether the cost of commissioning is justifiable is to calculate whether the cost of downtime is greater than the cost of the commissioning process. Experts recommend investing from 1% to 2% of the overall data centre project cost on the commissioning process. Using this approach data centre operators should see a 5% to 10% return on investment from commissioning in terms of overall data center performance.

Facility management people at work

Future Outlook 

Part two of this series will look in more depth at Future-tech’s and other experts’ experience of the commissioning process.

Future-tech and its partners provide a range of engineering services including commissioning. By engaging Future-tech to ensure that systems are running correctly, clients have saved up to 67% on facility operational costs. For more information on commissioning please contact us at info@future-tech.co.uk

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