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Greenfield vs. brownfield data center development strategies

Don't count out that old, empty department store that hasn't seen customers in a decade -- data center brownfield developments bring new life to these types of abandoned buildings.

Diagonal columns, window-filled walls and high ceilings are all things that could create a hiccup in a data center development on a brownfield property.

Turning an existing building into a data center involves a number of challenges but includes all sorts of benefits, including easy access to existing power connections, getting tax credits and getting a building with tremendous floor load, according to Mike Balles, director of design services for Baton Rouge, La.-based Venyu Solutions Inc., which is converting a former department store into a data center in Jackson, Miss.

Balles discovered the property in Jackson's Fondren neighborhood about 18 months ago and Venyu purchased it a year ago. The two-story, 67,000 square foot building was redesigned to become a data center, and demolition of parts of the building started in September.

The project is estimated to cost $35 million. The new data center will be home to cloud hosting, cloud backup and disaster recovery services plus colocation space. It is expected to open by September 2016.

By selecting brownfield versus greenfield property for the data center development, Balles said it will be done two to three months sooner and it will result in "considerable savings," although he declined to say an exact dollar amount.

"I'd much rather adaptively retrofit a building versus build something new," he said.

To start, Balles and his team spent a lot of time getting to know the building, bringing with him specialists in electrical, mechanical and fire protection systems. Their exploration uncovered all sorts of finds -- including a safe hidden in the floor.

When complete, the new data center will have somewhere between 288 and 360 server racks.

Also part of the project, in a separate area of the building, will be University of Mississippi Medical Center's Center for Telehealth.

Powering the brownfield data center

Venyu is working to get the data center certified at Tier III from the Uptime Institute LLC and will have redundant N+1 power and cooling. It will have four emergency generators, each with 1 megawatt of power in an N+1 configuration and have an N+1 UPS configuration with a capacity of 1800 kWh.

The cooling will be on the roof, with eight 200-ton, nominal air-cooled chillers feeding eight air handling units.

I'd much rather adaptively retrofit a building versus build something new.
Mike Ballesdirector of design services, Venyu Solutions Inc.

There were several factors that drew Venyu to the brownfield property, including its proximity to an AT&T central office across the street. The data center will be served by a minimum of three communication providers, including new fiber from C Spire.

Some of the things Balles looked for in his site search was a property that had high availability of power and connectivity.

"Those are the two things we need the most to make a data center work," he said.

In addition, he looked for high floor load and a wide space between columns. He also tried to avoid flight paths and rail lines.

"I don't know there is ever a perfect location," Balles said. "You have to be flexible with the design and how you lay it out."

Brownfield data centers a boon to local economies

One of the big plusses to data center development of a brownfield site is the tax benefits that can come from it. Venyu has put the property on the National Register of Historic Places and will restore the exterior to its original look. When the new data center is complete, it will appear on the outside very similar to the way McRae's Department Store did in its heyday in the 1960s, Balles said.

That, combined with the creation of new jobs in the data center and the neighboring telehealth center, has qualified the project for tax breaks. Projects that improve neglected properties and put them back on the tax rolls often generate attention too. The Venyu project, for example, got the attention of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and generated positive local news coverage.

Before selecting the former McRae's building, Balles said he looked at several other sites and eliminated them. One would have also included a residential component, another wasn't near a fiber line and it would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars to connect and a third one was on property at the end of a runway.

"There are good structures out there, you just have to take the time to find them," Balles said.

Greenfield vs. brownfield data center projects

The Venyu project highlights many of the differences of a brownfield data center development versus greenfield sites. To start, brownfield data center development often happens faster than a greenfield project, according to Kelly Morgan, a multi-tenant data center analyst at 451 Research LLC in New York.

Though a greenfield data center project takes longer to get in service, it will likely allow a developer greater flexibility in the design, she said.

"You can control exactly what you are doing," Morgan said.

One of the most common properties for data center operator to redevelop are factories, which often already have a reliable and high-capacity power supply, but not always, she said.

"You may think power is already set up but you may need an additional feed," she said.

In either case, there are plenty of things to watch out for when a data center development involves an existing building. Check carefully the floor's ability to hold heavy weight, watch out for "crazy columns" and beware of windows, she said. A lot of windows, for example, create the need to build new walls inside the windows, adding significant cost to the project.

As was the case in Jackson, a data center developer may be greeted with tax credits and other perks for making use of a building that is dilapidated or has become an eyesore.

"Usually the city is happy to have someone take over an old building," Morgan said.

One of the most significant challenges faced by turning an existing building into a data center is the introduction of generators outside the building.

A warehouse or other former industrial building may not be as weatherproof as you wish, and data center operators should consider reinforcing the building to withstand tornadoes and earthquakes.

Depending on the form of cooling that is used, Morgan said it is important to make sure a new data center will be able to get enough water. A RagingWire Data Centers Inc. facility in California, for example, had an issue with water supply and ended up digging its own well, she said.

A brownfield property may also present problems for free cooling, she said, and operators need to make sure they can find a way to make free cooling work in an existing building.

Another often overlooked issue is the amount of parking required by zoning. Parking requirements in industrial and commercial zones are often based on the square footage of the building, even if the building is full of servers, storage and networking gear -- and no people.

Morgan recalls an Infomart Data Centers facility that was confronted with the possibility of building a parking garage based on its size, but not the number of cars that would park there on a typical day. Those same requirements may also trigger the need for a parking study, Morgan said -- something that isn't otherwise necessary given the few vehicles that would come and go from the data center daily.

And while data center brownfield projects can revive old buildings, developers also encounter issues with access and landscaping from neighbors who fear that the new data center will be another type of eyesore.

"There are times when the local community doesn't want it to look like a data center," Morgan said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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