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When you need to deploy a new data center that can meet immediate data processing needs and is extensible to accommodate growth, you want to make the right choice when it comes to design and construction, including calculations for capital expenditures (capex) and operating expenditures (opex). You also want to ensure that you get the highest quality for minimum cost and, most importantly, ensure that construction is fast, to shorten time to return of investment (ROI).
If you have assessed your data center construction options, then you probably have already determined that going with a modular data center will save you time and money. In fact, installing a modular data center in lieu of a stickbuilt data center can save you 30 percent of your costs. However, choosing to go modular is only the first step. To truly minimize costs and shorten time to revenue, you have to choose the right modular data center supplier as a collaborative partner from the outset.
The Importance of Partnering with the Right Vendor
When you begin planning to install a new data center, your primary concerns are normally time to revenue and total cost of ownership (TCO).
Installing any data center is an expensive proposition, and when you weigh the line-by-line costs of modular versus stick-built, you will find that modular looks very attractive. However, to optimize both time to completion and TCO, you need to work with a vendor you can trust to deliver on time at the promised cost and that will stand behind their work.
Consider, for example, the impact of data center installation on other construction timelines. When you sign a contract with a modular data center vendor, you should receive delivery dates you can count on. Missed delivery dates will have a domino effect that is sure to lead to cost overruns, as well as delays.
You have already determined how much you can save by going modular, but if you can’t rely on your modular data center supplier, it not only extends time to revenue, but it also will erode the trust of other stakeholders. For example, if the CIO and IT team experience delays in data center delivery or setbacks with installation and operations, they will start to believe that your decision to go modular was a mistake. Even if it’s clear from operating projections and PUE estimates that a modular design will save money, you will have to work harder to restore the team’s faith in a modular data center solution.
The right data center supplier can help you prove that going modular was the clear choice. An experienced, trustworthy modular data center supplier will not only meet their delivery dates, help you save time and reduce costs during installation, but they will also lay the foundation for trust and ongoing returns so you can get the most from your modular data center investment.
Key Considerations When Choosing a Modular Supplier
Choosing the right modular data center supplier requires enough understanding about the differences between stick-built and modular data center construction, to enable you to ask the right questions. There are different design and construction strategies and concerns when you decide to go modular, so to get maximum return, you want to find a data center provider that knows modular design, can meet your design specifications and accommodate your construction schedule.
Naturally, you want to engage an experienced supplier. When you start your search, research their credentials in a variety of areas:
You also want to quiz them about customization and design adaptability. Even though they are delivered as completed units, modular data centers are not cookiecutter designs. On the contrary, they are highly customized and should be created to suit your unique specifications.
Assess the supplier’s data center design expertise and how they work with clients. Do they have a collaborative process in place to develop and review design criteria? Is the interaction to develop the customized data center design more than an exchange of information, but also a mutual learning experience? Ideally you want to feel confident in the vendor’s expertise and counsel, but you also want to be sure they understand your unique needs and concerns.
In addition to working with you as the customer, the modular data center vendor has to work with everyone else in the value chain. Do they have a collaborative process to work with your engineers and on-site contractors? The last thing you want is to have your engineering firm, your general contractor and your modular data center contractor at odds due to lack of communication or an inability to work together.
Also determine if the supplier is prepared to make your contract a priority. You want to be sure that modular data center design is a primary part of their business and not just a secondary offering, as this will determine if you get their full attention. You also want to be sure that your contract won’t be eclipsed if a larger contract comes in the door. It’s not unheard of for an agreement to be reached to move forward, and the contract is cancelled at the last minute because a bigger job took precedence.
When discussing design and installation options, also make sure that the modular provider is both vendor agnostic or vendor neutral, and “electrical contractor agnostic.” They should be prepared to use any standardized parts, including servers and hardware that you may want to supply yourself. They also should deliver a finished data center module that complies with recognized industry standards and can be installed by a licensed electrical contractor.
Maintaining the highest quality standards throughout the design and manufacturing process needs to be a priority. Make sure to ask about specific quality assurance (QA), inspections and other procedures. And be sure to drill down into specific areas that have a direct impact on QA.
Any modular data center manufacturer should be current on all the latest safety and construction certifications.
Be sure to ask about the relevant industry standards, such as:
ISO 9001:2015 – Requirements for ISO 9001:2015 are designed to ensure that an adequate quality management system is in place. The standard was set up to demonstrate consistent quality in products and services, and to ensure conformity and ongoing improvement to production systems that improve customer satisfaction.
Underwriters Laboratories (UL/cUL) – Underwriters Laboratories (or cUL in Canada) are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) and is dedicated to applying scientific research to improve safety and address risks. Among other areas, UL is responsible for developing standards for safety performance and sustainability, including requirements to minimize risk and injury. These safety standards are designed to protect both end users and manufacturers.
QRXA – Listed as a subcategory in UL, QRXA covers installation of wiring and electrical systems in prefabricated structures, such as modular data centers.
CSA Group – The CSA Group is a worldwide group that develops tests, safety inspection and certification protocols for manufacturing to demonstrate that products are safe and in compliance with environmental and performance operating standards.
American Welding Society – For enclosures and construction that requires welding, The American Welding Society (AWS) maintains standards designed to promote safety and health, while ensuring qualified welders deliver reliable finished products.
There are additional safety regulations as well, but compliance with these well-known standards will demonstrate that your vendor is serious about safety, including delivering a safe end product.
In addition to safety, you want to ask about QA certifications and test procedures. Do they test to the standards set by the InterNational Electrical Testing Association (NETA)? Part of ANSI, the NETA is responsible for third-party electrical testing, and an independent firm should perform NETA Breaker Testing and Commissioning. Although you may not want to pay for third-party testing, your supplier should perform their own testing and be confident that they will meet NETA standards.
Also, be sure to inquire about environmental impact inspections, such as testing for rain penetration, which is a standardized test maintained by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). As part of final product testing, you also want to be sure to have access to Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT) or factory witness testing for on-site examination and testing of cables, cooling, power, fire suppression and other systems prior to shipment.
Asking for quality assurance testing and compliance is a good place to start, but you also want to be sure there is a comprehensive quality control plan in place that includes corrective action. If there is a problem with a design issue, e.g., engineering changes or retrofits, then there needs to be a procedure to identify those issues and correct them. The same is true for process concerns, such as welding.
In addition to standards compliance, be sure to ask about other manufacturing procedures and processes that have an impact on efficiency and time to delivery.
For example: Where are materials sourced, and will access to components impact production time? You want to make sure that your supplier has a store of components and reliable suppliers who can deliver on time to keep the production schedule on track.
Is their primary business dedicated to manufacturing modular data centers? Your greatest concern should be that you will get the attention you deserve in design and production, which will ensure delivery dates will be met. You don’t want delays because resources are needed elsewhere or because another more lucrative project could affect your contract.
Also inquire about active project management. Every business has some form of project management infrastructure in place. You want to be sure that, as a client, you have a single point of contact who tracks every aspect of your project and who can serve as a liaison to eliminate roadblocks. You want to be sure there is a representative actively managing your contract and that there is continuity, so there aren’t changes in responsibility that can cause confusion and delays.
Also, be sure to get details about delivery procedures. Some suppliers just deliver the finished data center and consider the project done. Others include on-site support to assist with data center installation and troubleshooting. Those that offer these services are the best partners, as they go above and beyond to understand your business goals and objectives. They use this knowledge to help you address any issues before they become a problem and ensure your data center is going to offer all the benefits that it was designed to. Be sure to ask about support during and after the installation process, including availability of 24-hour support in conjunction with delivery and post-delivery support procedures.
Best Practices for a Successful Modular Data Center Project
When you enter into an agreement with a modular data center provider, you are asking that supplier to deliver a customized, ready-to-install unit that represents substantial expense and is a vital component in business operations.
It’s not the same as ordering the latest iPhone. The engagement should be highly collaborative, and there should be a free, open exchange of information and communication of expectations to ensure you get the data center solution you need, when you need it. To increase your chances of a successful engagement, you should consider how you want to engage to promote collaboration and understanding.
To cement understanding requires an exchange of sensitive information, as well as mutual trust. Therefore, a mutual non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is recommended, even during the preliminary stages. Normally, an NDA is one-sided and designed to protect the customer. A mutual NDA makes it easier for you to share technical requirements and sensitive information, while allowing the supplier to share proprietary information about procedures and processes. Implementing a mutual NDA is always in the client’s best interest.
You should also expect to talk to representatives from each key department on the supplier side—engineering, quality and production, as well as sales. To ensure close communications, be sure to include representatives from the three key departments involved from your side—engineering, purchasing/procurement and construction— as well as any other stakeholders who may need to be involved. You should also designate your own project manager. Active project management is a two-way street, and you need to provide the right engineer who can manage the project from your side and liaise with the project manager from the supplier side.
Be sure to have your own quality team evaluate the vendor’s quality assurance protocols. The best modular data center vendors have advanced quality planning and inspection in place—quality systems that go well beyond the minimal standard. For example, at PCX we use a design and risk analysis system that scores each procedure. When we encounter a process that has a particularly high score, we implement a quality control process to eliminate risk and mitigate design issues.
If you are using an engineering firm (which is always a good idea), be sure that they are open to modular data center construction, and have them engage with the data center supplier from the outset. If possible, engage the data center provider before you hire a general contractor. The engineering firm, the general contractor and the data center supplier should work in close collaboration to avoid costly missteps. For example, a last-minute change in the engineering plans or in wiring at the construction site could create unnecessary delays and added costs, unless there are open communications between all the affected parties.
Any data center construction project represents a significant investment in time, money and resources, which makes sense, since data centers have become critical to today’s successful business operations. That’s why data center construction should not be left to chance and why more companies are going modular. However, due diligence is always essential to ensure that you choose the right modular data center partner. Once you find a modular data center provider you can rely on, you can be sure that data center construction will be smoother, faster and less expensive.
Essential Questions for Potential Modular Data Center Suppliers
When assessing prospective modular data center providers, you want to be sure that they have the capabilities and commitment to meet your needs.
What’s your technical capability? This is a broad question that encompasses engineering and design talent, as well as manufacturing capacity. Be sure they have the capabilities you need to deliver your data center project.
Who have you worked with in the past? If the supplier has worked with similar types of companies and projects in the past, it should be a good indicator of how they will perform on your contract. Ask about projects of the same scope and size, and get customer references. Also, be sure to ask about bad experiences and past challenges, as well as successful projects.
What are some of the lessons learned from previous projects? This is an invitation to share information and demonstrate their expertise. The supplier should be prepared to share information and offer insights into both proven techniques and potential pitfalls. After asking this question, you should come away with new knowledge you didn’t have before.
What is your construction capacity? You want to ensure that there won’t be issues with the delivery schedule. Probe into details regarding the lead time required for parts and materials, construction schedules and delivery factors. Also ask about their track record with regard to on-time delivery
What could happen between now and the purchase order that could affect price and delivery schedule? This type of question will tell you a lot about a vendor, including how confident they are in their bidding process and whether there are other projects in the wings that could impact your contract.
How do we guarantee lead times and on-time delivery? Determine what documentation is typically put in place as part of the binding delivery agreement: letter of intent, purchase order, contract, etc. Also, be sure to identify all supporting documents that may affect deliverables.
How do you handle post-construction support? Once the modular data center is complete and delivered, what is the supplier’s responsibility? Some suppliers see their responsibility ending when the final product is loaded on the truck; others offer support for months after delivery, assisting with installation and troubleshooting as needed.
These are just a few of the qualifying questions to ask of your prospective modular data center supplier. Be sure to poll your engineering team, senior management, and other stakeholders so they can add their own questions and concerns. All of the stakeholders need to be comfortable with both the vendor and their process.
PCX Corporation: The Modular Data Center Provider
Clearly, choosing the right modular data center provider is critical to success, which is why more organizations are turning to PCX.
PCX Corporation is a recognized leader in off-site manufacturing of electrical and mechanical systems—including modular data centers—for commercial construction, industry and utilities. In fact, PCX was one of the pioneers in building prefabricated electrical systems, integrating electrical and mechanical components into custom enclosures and skid-based systems.
As one of the innovators in modular data center design and fabrication, PCX has developed a comprehensive set of manufacturing and quality protocols and procedures. PCX has an unparalleled quality control process designed to prevent manufacturing and safety issues, and remediate processes to ensure flawless production and a superior end product. PCX also has perfected collaborative design and integration protocols, working closely with customers to develop and deliver highly customized modular solutions built to exact specifications. PCX prides itself on its creative collaborative approach and its flexibility in supporting customer needs.
From start to finish, PCX processes mitigate risk and reduce overall cost, with accelerated construction schedules that shorten time to delivery and time to revenue.
You can expect to see more modular data centers being installed for various business-critical computing applications in the years ahead, and companies like PCX will be there to ensure successful modular design, fabrication and installation. The advantages of going modular are too big to ignore, but to maximize the value and versatility from adopting a modular data center approach, you need a vendor with the right expertise that you know you can trust, like PCX Corporation.