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IBM's secret data lair

IBM's secret data lair
Data centres aren't particularly exciting or glamorous- but in IBM's case, there's definitely a wow factor.

When IBM began tendering for its $80 million data centre in 2009, bids were few and far between. The economy had seen better days, the sheer scale of the work was larger than many companies could handle, and others were reluctant to hedge all their bets on a single project.

“It became very apparent this job was the biggest thing in the market,” says IBM real estate manager Fiona Hollands.

As a result, companies that might usually have competed in the market collaborated on the project, which saw more than a thousand site inductions carried out over the course of the development.

Design manager and technical lead Greg Darcy says the pool of local talent was excellent, and staff trained on new equipment not previously available here will now be able to pass that knowledge on down the line.

“There’s a whole education process that’s gone through the New Zealand technical staff now,” he says.

Contractors worked with IBM engineers in Australia and the US, and Jonathan Walker of JWA Architects says balancing innovation with international standards was an integral element of the brief.

“IBM had very high expectations for both the product and the service delivery,” he says. That meant no decisions were taken for granted – rather, every step was questioned, which he says is very different from the usual Kiwi MO of simply aiming to deliver a project as quickly as possible.

All that paid off when IBM’s Highbrook facility was unveiled earlier this year. One may not think of data centres as particularly exciting or glamorous – they are, essentially, massive warehouses filled with servers – but Hollands says this one, situated on a hill in the new Highbrook business park, has the “wow factor.

“It’s not meant to be an icon or attract attention to itself because of its function,” Walker explains.

Rather, its understated concrete-and-glass exterior provides an impervious shell for the equipment within. Data centres are simple buildings – but what they contain is extremely sensitive, not just in a security sense, but also to physical conditions.

Darcy says IBM’s existing Newton data centre (to merge with the Highbrook facility) had aged; the advent of cloud computing in particular meant telecommunications requirements had advanced beyond its scope.

“The vision was always to give Auckland a data centre of world standing,” he says.

For starters, its telecoms rooms are much larger, and there are multiple levels of redundancy each from mains, UPS and generator power (vital for a 24/7 operation).

The centre also utilises the latest in energy efficiencies. Perforated floor tiles control air supply as needed and an underground pipework collection system doubles as rainwater storage, used as a priority supply for the cooling tower. The heat-intensive data hall itself is a lights-out environment by default.

Auckland is notorious for its fickle weather, and devising innovative ways to work with it, rather than against it, resulted in the creation of a mixed mode waterside economiser. The hybrid design combines the best of waterside and airside models, using chilled water to either provide total free cooling for the site, or partial free cooling in tandem with mechanical chillers, depending on external conditions.

Another unique aspect of the building was its ‘box within a box’ construction. A 1,500m2 raised floor is contained within an insulated container, housed inside a traditional warehouse. Not only was that cost-effective, it reduced construction time significantly.

“Normally you start from the outside and work your way in but in this case the engineers in particular focused on the raised floor first,” says Hollands.

“It’s the precious part, it’s the part we’re trying to protect, and everything that sits around that is all about servicing and maintaining that raised floor in a stable environment. So we put that in the middle and worked everything else around it.”

Although IBM has hundreds of data facilities around the globe, the Highbrook facility is one of just three green “leadership” centres worldwide (the other two are in Colorado and North Carolina), the first of which was completed only 18 months ago.

It operates as a cloud environment, meaning all services are available online and can serve customers anywhere in the world.

“Once people get their head around where New Zealand is on the map it’s a very attractive proposition for a number of reasons,” Hollands says.

For one, there are low security risks, the political climate is stable, and there’s a high percentage of renewable energy sources on tap – a key consideration for high-energy load data centres. And with Pacific Fibre on track to build a second internet cable linking New Zealand to the US, it’s becoming an even more attractive proposition as an IT hub.

IBM is also leaving itself room to grow. Its modular design means there are options to expand without disrupting existing services, and there’s space to add on a second facility of the same size in half the time a traditional data centre would take to build.