BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Understanding the data centre market

Growing use of data has increased demand for dedicated data centres. This presents opportunities for building surveyors in repurposing existing buildings as well as developing new facilities

Author:

  • Jonathan Pegg MRICS

03 March 2022

Met Office computer building, Exeter

Atkins-designed high-performance computer building for the Met Office in Exeter, containing data centre © Atkins

Data and the infrastructure that supports it are now essential components of modern life. But the amount of data we use can no longer be contained simply by our devices, and we require storage bases in the form of data centres.

Data centres are physical facilities purpose-built to house critical applications and data. The key design components include routers, switches, firewalls, storage systems, servers and application controllers.

Essentially warehouses or sheds, data centres contain rack after rack of servers in an optimum environment. These storage spaces can exceed 900m2 to meet data use and storage needs.

Spatial requirements are also influenced by the economies of scale necessary for energy and cooling systems. Data centres are energy-hungry buildings: a small one may require 10MW, but demand can go up to 100MW.

The market is accelerating as demands for data continue to increase. However, the need to achieve net-zero carbon is, rightly, presenting a challenge for centre providers and users, as recently discussed by Data Centre Magazine for instance.

Data centre companies are increasingly looking for carbon-free power providers; however, they also need diesel or gas back-up generators, and there is embodied carbon in the construction of the building itself. So, the sector is looking at reducing carbon in operation and in construction materials such as low-carbon concrete.

Property transactions in the data centre market require the services of surveyors, of course. We can also support funding and insurance, as well as the repurposing of existing buildings and construction and fit-out of new ones. Maintenance, servicing, upgrades and decommissioning likewise rely on our skills.

Range of clients requires range of services

Opportunities for the profession are abundant. But to make the most of them, we need a fundamental understanding of our clients' requirements.

There are several types of client who could engage a building surveyor, including:

  • organisations with in-house data centres for their own servers

  • landlords of data centres where third parties can use their own servers 

  • data hall tenants 

  • users who rent space on a data rack

  • funders 

  • insurers

  • design and build contractors

  • data centre operators, including their estate departments.

Despite this variety, data centre landlords and tenants have many requirements in common. These include:

  • reliability, to ensure uninterrupted service 

  • security 

  • sufficient electrical capacity 

  • anonymity for users

  • resilience

  • room for expansion

  • managing energy consumption

  • minimising carbon emissions

  • the needs of third-party and end users.

In addition, landlords will want to keep development costs down and ensure a good yield, while tenants will want to secure suitable rental terms. Nevertheless, the complexity of these different technology and service requirements means the sums involved in the market can be considerable. It is not unknown for a 4MW data hall to cost £20m.

This presents a range of opportunities for surveyors. Their roles can include:

  • supporting freehold or leasehold purchases

  • helping with disposal 

  • dealing with landlord and tenant matters 

  • acting for funders 

  • administering design and build contracts 

  • project management 

  • acting as independent certifier for end user or funder 

  • project monitoring

  • taking the supervisor role on NEC-procured projects.

The two main kinds of job on which surveyors will work, though, are repurposing existing buildings for use as data centres and the development of new facilities.

Related article

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Interior of data centre

Repurposing buildings as data centres

Surveying existing buildings to be fitted out as data centres requires a good understanding of their distinct requirements. These will not only include generally applicable standards and legislation, but also the specifics of location, space, security and building fabric.

Site location factors include:

  • meeting local plan requirements for data centre development

  • availability, capacity and resilience of power supply, and whether there is potential for renewable energy

  • potential to install a back-up generator 

  • time lag for data transmission, or latency: the further away from users, the greater the potential for slower transmission 

  • regulations on generator discharge, noise, cooling and natural habitat impact. 

Space is then needed for:

  • the required number of servers 

  • plant rooms and back-up plant rooms

  • generators

  • support functions for the data hall, such as fibre intake and distribution rooms, storage for sprinkler and gas suppression systems, build rooms for racks, clean space for servicing, and data rack repairs. 

In terms of building fabric, common requirements may include:

  • 6.5m minimum floor-to-ceiling height to enable internal fit-out

  • corridors and turning circles sufficiently wide to transport servers

  • level routes to ease server transport 

  • capacity for clean space, to prevent interference with data racks from, for instance, zinc fibres from galvanised floors.

Particular services, which must be installed by mechanical and electrical engineers, will include:

  • power provision

  • cooling and waste heat extraction

  • features such as cooling systems that increase energy efficiency. 

Any purchase survey should be undertaken in accordance with the current edition of Technical due diligence of commercial property, RICS guidance note, as well as the client's specific requirements.

Upgrading facilities to meet rising demand

Technology is constantly going out of date, meaning that servers and associated services are in almost constant need of upgrade. This will become more pronounced as demands for data storage – and in tandem, cooling – grow.

The rising use of data by consumers increases demand for data handling, whether in house or by third parties. Common data centre provision by landlords, with halls fitted out by the tenant, differs in terms of risk profiles, speed of access and flexibility. It is therefore important that a surveyor understands what the client's role is, and the services it is providing.

Plant that serves data centres will also need upgrading to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Otherwise, we could see scenarios such as that recently projected by Data Centre Magazine, where facilities could account for 70% of Ireland's energy use by 2030.

As the data centre market grows and operating requirements are better understood, so too will the preferred business models. At present, the tendency is for tenants to rent data centre space over terms of five to ten years, on the assumption that data is an ever-developing technology. The current trend is for cloud providers is to rent for the short term, with larger established companies simultaneously building. The demand for data is high at present, with data companies seeking the fastest route to provide their data service.

While data centres present a number of challenges for clients, building surveyors are well placed to help them. If properly understood, the market offers us a range of opportunities.

'Technology is constantly going out of date, meaning that servers and associated services are in almost constant need of upgrade'

 

Jonathan Pegg MRICS is an associate director at Atkins
Contact Jonathan: Email

Related competencies include: Client care, Data management, Sustainability

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