Sizing Up Data Centers

Sizing Up Data Centers

This piece was originally published in the July 2016 issue of electroindustry.

Madeleine Bugel, Program Manager, Lighting Systems and International Business, NEMA

The ACC7 data center, encompassing 446,000 square feet, is located in Northern Virginia's Data Center Alley. Photo courtesy of DuPont Fabros Technology
The ACC7 data center, encompassing 446,000 square feet, is located in Northern Virginia’s Data Center Alley. Photo courtesy of DuPont Fabros Technology

While there are a several factors that determine a good location for a data center, the one that most people think of first is space; data centers need lots of space to store all the equipment that makes data storage possible, from the servers themselves to the cables, batteries, and generators. Data centers are all about redundancy, so cutting corners on the amount or size of equipment is simply not an option.


Due to size requirements, most data centers are located in less populous areas where real estate prices are lower than in urban areas. There are exceptions. Although data moves from the data center to the user at the speed of light, there is still a delay, albeit short, that could cause a problem in high-paced industries, which tend to be common in urban centers. Think of the finance industry, where decisions need to be executed as quickly as possible and vital, relevant information needs to be readily available. Having a data center halfway across the country might not make sense.


Many people assume that data centers ought to be built in the middle of nowhere, where real estate is affordable and the space occupied by the center will not interfere with people.

Although cheap land is beneficial, awareness of the electrical grid is crucial. Data centers are very energy intensive, which is not surprising given that they are filled to the brim with equipment that requires electricity to function. Redundancy must also be considered; ideally, a second electrical grid is available in case the first fails. In some instances, the front of a data center is on one power grid while the back is on another. The redundancy of multiple grids and batteries covers the switch between power sources and generators.


Although real estate is expensive in Washington, D.C., American University keeps its data center close to its campus. Recently, I visited the AU data center with a small group of about 15 people. As we snaked through the data center in a single file, it was evident that the center is not meant to hold humans—there is no floor space for people.

The center was built and designed for one or two people to do repairs and maintenance. It is just one room with the same pattern of caged servers. The spaces between the cages of servers were too narrow to be called hallways.

Data centers may be uncomfortable, not simply because of the physical structure but also due to the atmosphere; there’s no need to paint the walls or add appealing light fixtures. Everything about the data center is built and designed with equipment—not humans—in mind.


Read the July 2016 issue of electroindustry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.