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Data Center Design Philosophy

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This sample chapter lays the foundation for addressing challenges of data center design, through a presentation of the more important design issues, priorities, and philosophies. The article concludes with a summary of the ten most important design guidelines.
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Editor's Note

This article is the complete first chapter of the Sun BluePrints™ book, Enterprise Data Center Design and Methodology, by Rob Snevely (ISBN 0-13-047393-6)

"Form follows function."
- Louis Henri Sullivan

The detailed process of data center design appears on the outset to be a purely mechanical process involving the layout of the area, computations to determine equipment capacities, and innumerable other engineering details. They are, of course, essential to the design and creation of a data center, however, the mechanics alone do not a data center make. The use of pure mechanics rarely creates anything that is useful, except perhaps by chance.

There are, in fact, some philosophical guidelines that should be kept in mind during the data center design process. These are based on the relatively short history of designing and building practical data centers, but are also based on design concepts going way back. This chapter looks at some of these philosophies.

This chapter contains the following sections:

  • Look Forward by Looking Back
  • A Modern Pantheon
  • Fundamentals of the Philosophy
  • Top Ten Data Center Design Guidelines

Look Forward by Looking Back

The idea that technology is relatively new, that it arose within the last fifty to one hundred years, is a common misconception. There have been great advances, particularly in the electronic age, but the truth of the matter is that technology has been around since human beings began bashing rock against rock.

One of the most interesting things about design is that it draws from many sources. Paintings by Raphael and Botticelli in the Renaissance were dependent on the mathematics of perspective geometry developed more than a millennia and a half before either were born. They also drew on the language and form of classical architecture and Greco-Roman mythology to provide settings for many of their works. Raphael and Botticelli created works that had never been seen before, but they could not have done this without the groundwork that had been set down in the previous centuries.

Look back to the most prolific designers and engineers in the history of western civilization: The Romans. Roman advances in design and technology are still with us today. If you cross a bridge to get to work, or take the subway, or walk down the street to get a latte, chances are you are doing so using elements of Roman design and technology. These elements are the arch and concrete.

When entering the Pantheon in Rome, most people probably don't remark, "What a great use of the arch!" and "That dome is a single concrete structure." However, without the modular design of the arch and the invention of concrete, the Roman Pantheon could not have been built.

The Romans understood that the arch, by design, had strength and the ability to transfer load from its center down to its base. They had used the arch in modular and linear ways to build bridges and carry water for their water systems. But in the Pantheon, the modularity of the arch realized its true potential. Spin an arch at its center point and you create a dome. This means that across any point in the span you have the strength of the arch. Also, they had found that concrete could be used to bond all of these arches together as a single dome. Concrete allowed this dome structure to scale beyond any other dome of its time. It would take eighteen centuries for technology to advance to the point where a larger dome than that of the Pantheon could be built.

What does the architecture of ancient Rome have to do with data centers? The physical architecture itself has little in common with data centers, but the design philosophy of this architecture does. In both cases, new ideas on how to construct things were needed. In both cases, using the existing design philosophies of the time, "post and lintel" for ancient Rome, and "watts per square foot" for data centers, would not scale to new requirements. It is this idea, the design philosophy of modular, scalable units, that is critical to meet the requirements of today's data centers and, more importantly, the data centers of the future.

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