What is a data center?




A Data Center, or "data processing center" is a large facility, structure, or building where a large quantity of electronic equipment, such as servers, fans, connections, and other necessary resources, is housed and maintained; this equipment is used to maintain a network or a system of computers, information, connections, and data belonging to one or more companies.

Much of the data that exists today is generated from phones, tablets, computers, household appliances, smart watches, and other devices that are connected to the internet and this data is stored in Data Centers.

Globally, the amount of data created, captured, copied, and consumed is expected to increase from about 59 zettabytes (ZB) in 2020 to 149 ZB in 2024, according to the Statista portal.

These facilities need to have enough energy to operate this entire system, as well as adequate ventilation for optimal operation and advanced security systems to prevent data leaks and other threats.

Likewise, it offers hosting to companies, helps them compile, save and protect all their digital information, as well as interconnect with some providers to guarantee the continuity of their operations.

Although a company may have its own Data Center, it is recommended that another company specializing in this branch of work be hired to oversee said Data Center and safeguard this large amount of information; they would be charged with maintaining the security and continuity of the business. Likewise, it is important to have access to computer support services to help solve any incident that may arise.

The specialized companies that are dedicated to providing these services must have the equipment and sufficient storage space to be able to better protect the immense amounts of data that they may receive.

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Classification of a Data Center

According to the American National Standards Institute, Data Centers have a standard of best practices called ANSI/TIA 942; its objective is to certify the availability of the components that these facilities have. Size, response time, and levels of redundancy are some examples of the aspects that are considered for said certification.

In addition to this classification, there are several levels called "Tiers." The concept of Tier indicates the level of reliability of a Data Center in relation to four defined levels of availability. The greater the number or class of the Tier, the greater the availability of the service, and therefore, the higher costs associated with its construction and the more time to complete it. Currently, four types of Tier have been defined.

Tier 1 is the basic Data Center: it is set up for small and medium-sized companies. Planned and unplanned service outages may occur. A disadvantage of this level is that if maintenance is required, it will be necessary to completely stop activity, so business continuity can be interrupted on various occasions.

Tier 2 is a redundant Data Center which is less susceptible to both planned and unplanned outages. It has a connection to a single cooling and electrical distribution line. Like the previous level, in case of maintenance, the interruption of service is also required here.

Tier 3 is a Concurrently Maintainable Data Center. It is focused on companies that provide service 24/7, that is, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A Data Center with these characteristics is connected to multiple electrical and cooling distribution lines, although only one is active at a time. This helps to maintain continuity of operations.

What is remarkable about this level and an advantage over the previous two, is that for its maintenance it is not necessary to stop the system, since its capacity is organized ideally to deliver the service through other lines.

Tier 4 or Fault Tolerant Data Center: these are intended for companies with a global presence, such as banks, multinationals, and others. Something extremely remarkable is its tolerance to failures, deriving from being connected to several electrical distribution and cooling lines. This level allows for business functions to continue during maintenance without affecting the service, especially for companies that have critical operations, and it is capable of dealing with unplanned events.

In reality, the only way it could fail is if at the same time there is a power outage and an error in two or more electrical factors on each of the supply lines.

This Data Center is the one with the highest availability of the four types, reaching 99.995%.

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Types of Data Centers 

Due to the great variety and flexibility that Data Centers offer, it is the responsibility of the IT department of a business to find the ideal type or combination that best suits its needs, taking into account availability, human and technical resources allocated to maintaining the correct Data Center operations and, of course, the amount of investment allocated for it.

If the Data Center is located in the company's or business' own facilities, the user(s) must have experts in the different types of applications that are executed and have maintenance contracts for server and telecommunications hardware, in addition to the specialization for the maintenance of its infrastructure. The advantages of having a Data Center in your own office is that you have total freedom of operations with it at any time and for whatever is needed; it is available.

As the hardware is on-site, the specialized personnel of your company can access the space as many times as they wish to make necessary corrections. Also, security and uptime are the full responsibility of the IT staff.

However, having your own Data Center also has some disadvantages. The responsibility for all aspects of provisioning and infrastructure and administration of the Data Center falls entirely on people from the company itself; this can cause a problem when, for example, there is an emergency at dawn or on a holiday and nobody can cover it.

Another disadvantage is the cost of construction, which the company assumes in its entirety. Additionally, internal operating expenses are usually much higher than opting for “housing” or an external Data Center.

If you decide to opt for housing, you would basically house your servers in an external Data Center. Among the services delivered by the provider are: the space to install the business' servers and equipment, the electricity required, the cooling systems for optimal performance, communication links within the Data Center, and specialized personnel to deal with any other needs.

The main benefits of hiring a Data Center externally are:

  1. Cost reduction: a Data Center provider offers several technological components that complement the infrastructure that a Data Center requires so that your business could save costs on the acquisition of various elements to keep your Data Center running.
  2. Greater security: in addition to a Data Center having all the necessary physical and technological infrastructure components, these are located in strategic places to avoid having a disaster affect its operations. Likewise, they have fire-fighting systems, adequate electrical installations, uninterrupted power supply, biometric readers, and restricted access to protect all the assets they manage to the maximum.
  3. Better connectivity: Data Centers have the possibility of connecting directly to the main telecommunications providers; thanks to this, the connection they offer is good and in most cases, it is guaranteed.
  4. Flexibility in service management: Hiring a third party for a Data Center gives you the possibility of having a quick response to the needs of your business processes as your business grows. When you choose an external Data Center provider, verify that they can offer you network services, Cloud services, support, and everything that your company requires when it comes to amplifying its operations.

It should be noted that a highly recommended option today is a virtual Data Center, also known as Cloud storage. This alternative avoids companies dealing with the complexities that they may have when implementing their own physical Data Centers.

There is also the option of mobile Data Centers; these are a profitable and self-sufficient solution since they are designed to house the critical and necessary network equipment, in addition to providing the infrastructure of a conventional server installation, in a portable, autonomous and robust infrastructure.

Mobile Data Centers have the advantage of being able to eliminate the need for a server room. It is the ideal solution when it comes to limited office space or for use in isolated or remote locations, where a secure, modular and fully portable installation is important or necessary.

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Security in a Data Center

Another significant aspect to consider is that of security, which fulfills the function of limiting access to the physical facilities and virtual platforms of a Data Center in order to protect the information contained in the event of any contingency.

The physical security of Data Centers involves protecting critical infrastructure from external threats or intrusions that threaten the activities of a company, as well as highly essential and high-value elements, such as servers.

This type of security includes video surveillance using cameras, access control, and perimeter security. According to Gartner Inc., a company specializing in computer consulting, these are the most important security measures having to do with the location and construction of a Data Center:

  • Physical location of the site: various assessments should be done regarding possible natural and man-made disasters, taking into account the specific aspects of infrastructure necessary for service.
  • Perimeter of the location: it is necessary to have security on the perimeter surrounding the area where the Data Center is located, using surveillance cameras, planning the construction design of the building, and considering access and evacuation points.
  • Control centers: it is necessary to monitor and maintain constant surveillance of access to rooms, in addition to having environmental security in terms of temperature, humidity, and fire prevention.
  • Building equipment and maintenance: cooling and heating systems, electrical connections, and information backup systems (on physical media for radical cases) are required.

Finally, as in any organization, the operators and workers within a Data Center have a list of policies and procedures to which they must adhere to corroborate efficient management and use as well as the proper maintenance of the facilities.

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Energy efficiency in a Data Center

It is estimated that 3% of the energy generated by humans is consumed by Data Centers around the world. Due to this, Data Centers have to comply with certain characteristics in terms of electricity use, so it is necessary to take action in this regard due to the potential economic and efficiency benefits that these practices generate.

According to the United States Department of Energy (DOE) a 1 megawatt (MW) Data Center consumes about 177 million kilowatts per hour over a 10-year life cycle. Meanwhile, the 1 MW system continually wastes the equivalent of carbon emissions from 1000 cars, due to an incorrect infrastructure project. Hence, the importance of having appropriate energy efficiency.

One of the solutions to this problem, and also an efficient practice to save energy, is to use an air management system, a technology that has been widely used in small Data Centers. This system allows the cooling equipment to remain in standby mode and then turn on again when necessary.

Other ways to have an energy-efficient Data Center and save energy is to install equipment that consumes less electricity when working and to provide the full amount of cooling needed for the equipment.


The importance of cooling in a Data Center 

Today, due to the large amount of processes, data, and energy stored in a Data Center, cooling is extremely important because it represents a significant opportunity to improve and achieve energy savings.

In many cases, relatively simple and inexpensive changes—such as improving the sealing of the Data Center or optimizing airflow—can result in immediate, significant benefits.

In addition, new technologies such as variable capacity air conditioners with sophisticated control systems must be considered for their impact on efficiency.

According to IDC, a company specializing in intelligence and data analysis, an efficient design in terms of Data Center cooling must have at least one of the following components:

  • Hot and cold corridors: this design allows the cold air produced by the Computer Room Air Conditioners (CRAC) to lower the air temperature in order to regulate the temperature of the servers and equipment contained on the racks.
  • Confined corridors: this type of infrastructure isolates the airflow from the entire computer room, which allows the efficiency of CRAC equipment to increase since the mixture of hot and cold air is avoided as would happen with open corridors.
  • Free cooling: a platform that regulates the construction of Data Centers. It focuses on the efficient use of external temperature and aims to improve the efficiency of and reduce electricity use by air conditioning equipment.

In the Elsevier study, Cooling systems in Data Centers: State of Art and Emerging Technologies, it is stated that practically all the electrical energy required in a Data Center is converted into heat and must be removed by an adequate cooling system.

"The most suitable cooling solution should be designed, depending on the design criteria, to obtain high energy efficiency, low cost, and reliability. A cooling system should be designed to cover the worst-case scenario, although most servers generally work at a much lower capacity than 100%. The control and prediction of temperature rising during a utility power outage is an important aspect for cooling system design."

The text also establishes that air cooling represents the backbone of Data Centers and that the trend is towards localized cooling units and the physical separation of the air stream within the Data Center, to support the increase in power density.

"On the other hand, liquid-cooled systems are becoming promising and emergent solutions for cooling high power density Data Centers. Today, the IT equipment is reaching power densities that in some cases justify the liquid-cooled solutions."

Whether your company is small, medium-sized, or large, a Data Center will help you scale your business, as it helps you provide continuity. Analyze the options that exist and the needs of your business so that you can choose what is best for your company.

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Other references:

  • TkmE Enviromental and Power Monitoring. (2017). ¿Cómo funciona un Data Center?
  • Gartner. (2015). Securing the Next-Generation Data Center with Software-Defined Security
  • Harvard Business Review. (2009). The Disappearing Data Center.
  • cliAtec 360 Data Center. (2019). Ahorro energético de Data Center.
  • Mundo HVAC&R. (2018). El Data Center y su enfriamiento
  • CIO. (2021). The Post-COVID Digital Transformation of the Data Center