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Land Costs Forcing Data Centers To Densify

Thanks to rising land prices in prime urban areas, data center users are facing the same trend seen in office buildings. But instead of lumping more people into less square footage, they're cramming more computing power into less space.

Georgia Tech Director Marissa Jules, right, talks about density at the school's data center with T5 Data Centers Executive Vice President Robbie Sovie.

“We know power densities are going up,” GIGA Data Centers CEO Jake Ring said during Bisnow's Data Center Investment Conference in Atlanta March 5.

Ring noted that older data centers were designed to handle 50 to 100 watts of energy output per SF. Today, they are being designed for much more as the Internet of Things integrates into more homes and average computing consumption-per-person continues to skyrocket.

By 2023, the average person will have 3.6 devices connected to a wireless network, up from 2.4 devices in 2018, according to a recent Cisco Systems study. That would mean the number of internet-connected devices on the planet would surpass 30 billion in four years.

Ring was among a collection of data center experts and executives for Bisnow's Data Center Investment Conference and Expo in Atlanta last week, where topics ranged from trends in data center use, how Atlanta is faring as a data center hub compared to other U.S. cities and what megatrends could shape the industry in the future.

One topic that nearly all panelists discussed was how data centers will need to handle an ever-increasing power output.

Georgia Tech Director of Architecture and Infrastructure Marissa Jules, who headed the planning and design of the school's data center at the Coda tower in Midtown. said density and flexibility are key to designing today's data centers. Not only do they need to be able to handle equipment that can do much more in tighter spaces, but also be able to reconfigure racks to add more when needed, and to do so without disrupting existing operations.

“I'm spending a lot of time trying to balance load and density,” Jules said. "The rest of it is all table stakes."

Leading Edge Design Group Principal Todd Boucher, T5 Data Centers Executive Vice President Robbie Sovie, Georgia Tech Director Marissa Jules, Bennett & Pless CEO Ed Gazzola, Flexential Senior Vice President Michael Silla and Tindall Corp. Manager Tim Gainey.

The current average power capacity in a data center is between 6 and 8 kilowatts per rack of equipment, according to a Huawei trend forecast. By 2025, that output is expected to range between 15 to 20 kilowatts a rack.

Escalating land costs are playing a part in this equation as well. Data center operators, who want to be in clusters that are close to population centers to cut down on the distance data travels, are paying far more for sites today than a decade ago, in many cases more than $1M per acre, Bennett & Pless CEO Ed Gazzola said. That is forcing developers to design multistory data centers, and ensuring that each floor can hold the weight of more and more equipment.

Already weight capacity on a floor averages 250 pounds per SF. That is up from 100 pounds 20 years ago, Gazzola said.

“What we typically recommend as a minimum is to design the columns and building for about 50% more load,” Gazzola said. “So if you want to turn your roof [into] an equipment farm, that's no problem.”

American Tower Director John Ghirardelli talks about reasons for his company's purchase of Colo ATL, along with Greenberg Traurig shareholder Kemal Hawa, Colo ATL founder Tim Kiser and Newby Ventures owner Hunter Newby.

Amassing more compute power into less space produces a lot of heat and right now, data centers typically use air to cool the equipment. Water is becoming a more effective, widespread method, but for some data center users, that's a difficult leap to make.

"We know that water is a better medium for extracting heat out of a data center than air,” Stulz Air Technology Systems Director Dave Meadows said. "But we also know that for the longest time people didn't want to bring water into their data centers."

Jules said Georgia Tech is using water-cooling technology on its equipment at Coda, which produces 100 kilowatts of power. The water is pumped into the data center and flows directly into the equipment to cool its components.

Nevertheless, Meadows said people react emotionally to the idea of bringing water directly into a room filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of electrical equipment. That reaction is creating a resistance to adopting the new technology.

“Despite the economics and despite the physics … there is not a large movement towards that,” Meadows said.