Soben is the industry leader in innovative data centre construction consultancy. In the past decade, our teams have delivered $18.2 billion and 1,869MW of projects across three continents. We are currently working with the global leaders in hyperscale and colocation data centre development on some of the world’s largest, most complex schemes. And we’ve learned a thing or two along the way. We spoke to Soben’s Data Centre Project Lead, Sharaz Javed, who shared his top lessons learned from managing some of the world’s most impressive data centre developments.
Lesson 1: Get hands-on with project management
While contact between a client’s representative and general contractor might traditionally have been limited to a weekly meeting, with data centre developments working to increasingly aggressive schedules, a different approach is needed.
“We are starting to approach projects side-by-side with the general contractor,” says Sharaz. “hourly reporting and planning, through an array of sources, means we can identify solutions before problems surface – setting ourselves up for success.”
Planning projects has to be strategic, says Sharaz, looking several steps ahead with the general contractor, considering different scenarios, so that risks can be mitigated and execution made easier. A career that has spanned every stage of the project lifecycle from design to construction and into operation, helps Sharaz see things from others’ perspectives.
“Together we have to ensure that we adhere to local codes and standards, achieving all the permits we need from the local authorities for the operation of a building. Liaison with the client’s construction directors, design engineering and new site development teams aids us to successfully accomplish even in the most challenging of scenarios.
A mixture of high expectations, direct conversations and commercial inferences help drive a strong performance from all partners on a project. Cultivating a positive atmosphere is important, allowing us all to achieve higher levels of productivity.”
Lesson 2: Micromanage everything
What do you do when multiple problems are threatening to derail your project: extended lead times, rising costs, deliveries delayed and the horrendous reality of personnel leaving to fight for their country? You get down to a ridiculous level of detail and keep your hand on every tiller.
“Even on recent standalone projects, we’ve mapped out and deployed the sort of project controls you might more normally use across a programme of multiple projects,” says Sharaz.
This starts at design implementation, with a scrutiny of the RIBA design stages to ensure that the design intent, PUE (power usage effectiveness) and sustainability strategy is achieved first time round. Project manager and document controller work together to co-ordinate a multitude of workshops and reviews with input from design engineering, engineer of record, vendors, commissioning agent and general contractor teams. “This requires robust management of the DCMS (Document Control Management System),” says Sharaz.
In delivery, if equipment is coming from all around the world, the paths of many of the critical items have to be mapped in detail, with the scheduled dates at intermediate ports, for instance, recorded and monitored so that any potential delays can be flagged up as early as possible.
“We’ve found ourselves creating micro-schedules and mitigatory programs, assigned to dedicated teams. This helps us to coordinate critical activities to achieve benchmarks and project milestones. Detailed entries on the DMS (Delivery Management System) can be required months in advance for logistics teams to assemble cranes and other logistics operations, providing as little as thirty minute windows for each arrival.”
Through testing and commissioning stages, planning intensifies further. “The management of test scripts, coordination and alignment of test procedures, test equipment, pre-requisites, live energies, health and safety, long shifts, days, nights and copious amounts of pizza and coffee, makes it by far the most technically interesting stages of data centre construction,” says Sharaz. “Especially when it needs to be repeated for multiple tenants.”
The team tests the building and its electro-mechanical and communications infrastructure to the limits multiple times, says Sharaz, to ensure the performance of the system achieves our standards. This has to accurately reflect in the network operations centre (NOC) via the Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, displaying the status of all the building’s plant and equipment in real time.
Lesson 3: Have a toolbox of tactics to fight supply chain problems
Almost all data centre construction projects face the prospect of delays caused by supply chain disruptions on multiple fronts. To fight those challenges, Soben’s team deploys a range of measures.
One hurdle is the global semi-conductor shortage that continues to reverberate through the industry. “Semi-conductors are important in controlling and managing the flow of electric current in microprocessors, which are found throughout the control modules in plant and apparatus,” explains Sharaz. “This means that the lack of semi-conductors can impede production slots in manufacturing facilities the world over.”
In such circumstances the OFCI approach – ‘Owner Furnished, Contractor Installed’, which sees the client directly purchasing some of the key equipment for a scheme – is vital, says Sharaz:
“Executed correctly, the OFCI role is a great opportunity to build trust and lasting business relationships, both internally and externally, which can deliver improvised mitigation through times of crisis.”
Earmarking long lead equipment well in advance, through a strong network of supply chain partners, means that the project team can better weather unforeseen production issues. This works well for the supply chain too because they can better plan their resources a longer time ahead.
A willingness to look at every option is also hugely helpful. For instance, on one project in Europe, heavy equipment that was due to come by road via Russia before travelling through Ukraine and eventually Germany, was prevented from doing so by the war in February 2022. “We were on the verge of chartering air freight for six large units of mechanical plant” recalls Sharaz, “before priority shipping slots were secured by our vendors’ local network.”
Lesson 4: Work the diversity
Whether considering individuals or companies, every project benefits from a diverse range of players.
“On recent projects, our partner teams, internal and external have been remarkable. The strength of different supply chain teams has been evident through weekly calls and communication.”
On one recent European project, across the seven members of Soben’s small team, nine languages were spoken fluently. “We are a diverse team, we all bring something different to the table,” says Sharaz. “Diversity in background, culture, education, experiences and environments enables you to approach, dissect and challenge problems in pragmatic and often different ways.”
With contractors and suppliers coming from an equally diverse mix of background, details are often communicated and understandings reached on the side-lines of first meetings, according to Sharaz. The same goes for relationships with each client team.
“Working with construction directors enables us to see the bigger picture and steer towards growth, both internally and externally. Through communications with different departments, we’ve worked on projects where real friendships have been formed.”
Diversity should also extend to engagement with site operatives, says Sharaz: “The time between morning daily activity briefings and site walks has the potential to produce a gigapixel image of the project status,” he says. “Absolutely every team on site should be approached, introduced, and most importantly thanked through the project lifecycle.”
Lesson 5: Play the end game
Perhaps this lesson should be first on the list.
“The next best thing to a crystal ball is pre-emption,” says Sharaz. “Working backwards, to establish a timeline, identify risks, resource load the program, mitigate and create float into each milestone. You need forensic planning from grave to cradle.”
This is particularly important when it comes to testing and commissioning. “When you have more than one tenant in a single facility sharing a common primary electro-mechanical system, the owner’s commissioning playbook may be insufficient for the commissioning specifications each tenant requires,” warns Sharaz. “Close engagement from the start avoids the need to scramble around in the end fulfilling potentially long lead activities and wish lists.”
There’s a tendency to lose float in the earlier civil phases of a project, which can lead to the intense testing and commissioning phases become even more restricted. Keeping a tight control on the programme at the beginning of a project pays dividends later, says Sharaz.
Reliability engineering and future proofing the design and construction of mission-critical facilities can be vital in addressing longevity, says Sharaz. Elements such as additional Computational Flow Dynamics (CFD) studies, robust Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and collective physical verification of revised Selectivity Studies all help to provide confidence to operations teams that the service level agreements of their tenants will be met.
“Business as usual is an anomaly in the data centre sector, especially in this current challenging global environment. We have to keep learning and adapting to meet our goal of delivering world-class data centres.”
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Soben offers something different – a combination of the best consultancy practices, with hands-on commercial experience delivering major construction projects. Soben’s global data centre specialists provide innovative construction consultancy solutions to the world’s leading data centre providers and tenants. To date Soben has delivered $18.2 billion and 1,869MW of projects across three continents. Find out more.