Streamlining Data Centre Operations with Commissioning

By: Gary Williams, Director of Commissioning at AESG

Applications and data are the lifeblood of business today and modern data centres are expected to deliver near 100% availability while remaining highly efficient to meet cost and ‘green IT’ objectives. While enterprises in the Middle East invest heavily in designing their data centres and fitting them with the best servers, storage, power solutions and cooling, many fail to conduct the tests necessary to ensure the various physical infrastructure subsystems – power, cooling, fire suppression, security, and management – will work together. As a result, one of the most valuable exercises- data centre commissioning- is often overlooked with its benefits unrealized.

Commissioning is the process that reviews and tests the data centre’s physical infrastructure design as a holistic system in order to assure the highest level of reliability. A comprehensive definition is provided by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) which states that the focus of commissioning is “verifying and documenting that the facility and all of its systems and assemblies are planned, designed, installed, tested, operated and maintained to meet the needs of the owner.” Done right, this essential service can deliver a host of benefits to data centre owners.

Higher Availability and Fewer Repairs

With ongoing digital transformation across all industry verticals, business reliance on IT has increased to unprecedented levels. Along with this, keeping mission-critical applications and data always available to employees and customers is now a key IT requirement. Perhaps therefore the greatest value of commissioning is its ability to prevent or greatly reduce downtime.

Commissioning ensures all systems in the data centre are properly integrated. It identifies single points of failure and remedies these with redundancy. In addition to mitigating system-related failures, the process also ensures data centre management and operations teams are well-trained and well-equipped, thereby reducing the possibility of human error leading to downtime.

Fast Fixes and Fewer Changes

Under the oversight of a Commissioning Authority (CxA), projects experience fewer change orders, delays, and rework, avoiding the considerable costs of late occupancy, liquidated damages, extended equipment rentals, and other costs associated with delays.

Reduced Costs

Commissioning is part of the implementation phase so its benefits are realized from the very start of data centre operation through the entire life cycle. Well integrated systems that have been tuned and optimized offer better performance, reduce maintenance and administrative overheads and even scale back energy requirements, resulting in lower utility bills.

Return on Investment

Closely related to the above stated reduced cost of operations, the return on investment offered by commissioning are truly impressive. While two to three year return periods are the norm for most system-related investments, ROI on commissioning is not only experienced faster, but often far exceeds the cost of the service itself. In all recent AESG projects, the potential cost impact of issues discovered and addressed during commissioning was far greater than the cost of the service. And these were conservative estimates too as they only accounted for the cost of labour and material, without factoring the significant productivity and revenue losses businesses could face as a result of downtime.

Getting it Right

Commissioning is a reliability science that documents and validates the result of a data centre’s design/build process. Placed in the context of an entire data centre deployment, commissioning should be part of the implementation phase and within this, it should come after the physical infrastructure systems have been delivered, assembled, installed, and individually started up. Once commissioning is complete, formal orientation and training of data centre staff can begin.

Every piece of equipment should be tested by executing a sequenced failure followed by a restart and return-to-stable operation. A sequenced failure implies that a failure in one component, such as a generator, is communicated to a second related component, such as the air conditioning system, so that the second component can act in an appropriate manner to minimize downtime or to be ready for action when power is restored. This testing cycle should be performed on each component and also on the entire integrated system. This will involve a complete power down and an automatic restart.

Bringing in the Experts

The manner in which commissioning is executed is strongly dependent on the particular organization’s needs. But often due to lack of time, resources or expertise, in-house teams are unable to properly commission their date centres themselves. This is where the services of a Commissioning Authority (CxA) can greatly aid project success. While the owner maintains decision-making power and thus control over the process, a skilled (CxA) team can deliver the expertise, guidance, and direction needed to make informed commissioning decisions.

The objective of commissioning is to ensure the highest level of reliability and it provides organisations with a reassurance that their critical physical subsystems are tightly integrated and work together. Any enterprise designing and deploying a data centre should leverage this high-return service to realise greater availability, efficient, and security through the entire duration of their data centre’s operation.