To the casual visitor, a data center is a quiet place — you hear the air-handling system and see tiny blinking LED indicator lights. But to an expanding number of electrical manufacturers and distributors, these spaces where nothing ever appears to happen are more like a thrill ride.

The power data centers require is immense, and the sensitivity of their electronics, combined with the mission-critical role they play in the lives and fortunes of individuals, companies and governments all over the world, means they require sophisticated and robust power supply, power distribution, power conditioning and backup systems. That, of course, means they use lots of electrical products.

Even in the more conservative projections of data center construction over the next decades, the growth curve looks like the proverbial hockey stick.

Energy-efficiency technologies are a major part of this growth, with estimates of 29 percent annual compounded growth in “green” data centers worldwide out to 2015. By that point high-efficiency data centers will account for about 28 percent of a $150 billion worldwide data center infrastructure market, according to estimates from Pike Research.

Small wonder that electrical manufacturers are throwing money at this market. Most electrical equipment manufacturers are targeting this market. Recent acquisitions targeting data centers include Legrand bought Electrorack, GE picked up Lineage Power and Thomas & Betts acquired JT Packard & Associates. Emerson's $1.5 billion buy of Chloride Systems was an important expansion of Emerson Network Power's data center offerings. Now Schneider Electric is buying Lee Technologies, Fairfax, Va., a service provider for data centers.

What's in Your Cloud?

It's easy to point out what's driving the growth of the data center market. “Teenagers,” says Tony Walker, director of marketing for the Data Communications Division of Legrand North America. But it's not just teenagers. It's all of us.

“The explosion of social media is disgusting — I've never seen a market grow so fast,” Walker said.

Just look at the growth in use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and whatever is emerging to rival them, and you see a glimpse of the bits and bytes that need to be stored and served on demand to people all over the world. That said, social media is only part of the rising demand, and likely not the largest.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 passed in the wake of accounting scandals headlined by the likes of Enron and WorldCom brought new requirements that companies hold onto every e-mail and just about every bit of data that ever passes through their hands.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) includes requirements for storage of medical records. Taking an X-ray now creates a digital file, maybe 6 gigabytes, and that needs to be stored in perpetuity.

Smartphones that access data and video and music stored in the cloud on Amazon's new Cloud Drive service, or the similar move Apple is said to be making with iTunes. TV shows. Video on demand in high-definition and eventually 3D. All these are stored on servers in a data center somewhere. Actually, probably several mirrored data centers.

Governments and financial markets handle a massive amount of data.

Then there's the rapid growth of “cloud computing,” offering software as a service (SaaS) allowing users of all kinds to let go of the need to buy, license and maintain software on their own systems.

Add to that the plan Google just announced to install a high-bandwidth (100MB) fiber network in Kansas City, Kan., as a demonstration of what it hopes to do nationwide. This level of capacity will open the way for new technologies using all that bandwidth. In countries that already have such high-capacity connections, such as Japan and South Korea, new services such as being able to buy products from vending machines using your smartphone are becoming routine.

Distribution Stratification

There's a lot of work here for distributors who choose to focus on the data center market. Of the electrical equipment that goes into a data center, a significant part differs little or not at all from the products any electrical distributor selling to the commercial market would have on hand. But the role of electrical distributors serving this market has been changing, and that has implications for distributors considering the data center market for the first time. Essentially, the cost of entry is going up.

Depending on what kind of processing a given data center's servers are set up to do, power consumption might range from 30W/square foot to 180W/square foot. The cost of building a data center is generally in the range of $10 million/MW of IT load, but that number is moving downward as data center designers and operators look for greater efficiency.

For a 10,000-square-foot data center built today, the overall cost will be in the neighborhood of $100 million, of which about $20 million worth of equipment will be the kinds of products bought through electrical distribution, estimates Legrand's Tony Walker.

Part of the electrical equipment does tend to be sold direct by the manufacturers, such as custom cabinets. More standardized equipment such as connectivity and cabling will typically be sourced through distribution. In the early days of data centers, around the time of the original dot-com bubble, more of the electrical supplies were handled through the traditional contractor-distributor model that prevails in commercial construction. This has evolved to a more end-user-oriented sales model as the information technology (IT) department has taken increasing control over the design and operation of the data center.

Along the way, the distribution supporting this market has begun to stratify, says Walker. Major distributors with operations dedicated to the data-communications market play a larger role, with companies such as WESCO Distribution's Communications Supply Corp. (CSC) unit, Anixter International and Graybar Electric among the largest distributors in data centers.

“An electrical distributor that has a datacom arm and with tier-one suppliers, they'll have 99 percent of the products (needed for a data center),” says Walker. “For an electrical distributor that does not have a datacom division or does not have tier-one suppliers? They're missing the boat. One of the things the data center business has done to data-communications distributors is stratify the tier-ones from the tier-twos.”

The larger distributors that concentrate on this market have established relationships with the project managers at consulting firms that design data centers. They also have developed the expertise to be able to talk to the chief information officer (CIO) and the rest of the IT department in their own language and understand the data center's priorities from the IT point of view. This is critical, says Walker.

It People

The experience and expectations of IT personnel differ quite a bit from those of facilities professionals.

“You're dealing with a skittish population. IT guys in general are skittish because if the CEO can't get to something, or if his PC's running slow, they're the goat,” says Walker.

Uptime — or the availability of the data center's processes — is their number-one priority, according to a recent survey, and they'll go to great lengths to make sure their bases are covered. The data center has to be able to serve its data on-demand 24×7×365. As cloud computing applications such as SaaS in enterprise systems grow in acceptance, the exclamation point on the uptime mandate only grows.

“It's not office space, it's not managing a manufacturing plant, it's managing a very highly redundant facility that has to be up and running 24 by 7,” says Rob Agar, V.P., infrastructure services and corporate information technology for Eaton Corp., Eastlake, Ohio.

Agar has been leading the design and development of a new installation of three data centers for Eaton. The first was completed and commissioned earlier this year. The second will be done in mid-May. Those first two data centers in the trio are essentially identical facilities (the only differences being the placement of a cooling pump and the size of a conference room) and they host fully replicated data, so no bit of data resides in only one place. The two are within 20 miles of each other, just outside Louisville, Ky. The 20-mile distance is critical because of the time it takes data to travel from one site to another.

“Because of latency issues, if you go beyond 20 miles, the data will be different,” Agar says. He's now working on the design and recommendations for the third facility, which is separated from the first pair by at least 30 miles, in part to minimize the risk of downtime due to a localized problem.

The plan for Eaton's data centers includes the eventual use of two separate grid tie-ins providing power, backed up by a 3,300 hp backup power generator running 12,470V at 2MW. With a 30,000-gallon diesel tank in the service yard, the data centers can run for 10 days without power, which offers a measure of protection from Louisville's annual ice storms, Agar said.

The outlook of IT professionals is also shaping the evolution of products developed for data center applications. At the Eaton data centers, it will come as no surprise that Eaton equipment is used throughout the facility. Agar said he used every Eaton product applicable to the data center, except for busway — Eaton's busway is not certified for under-floor applications. (The power cables in Eaton's data centers run under the floor, communications above the ceiling.) Agar intends to use the data centers as marketing and branding showcases beyond just providing for the company's data storage needs.

In the process of designing the facilities, Agar's team worked with Eaton's product managers to further refine products according to their needs. For one example, the company's enclosure power distribution units (EPDUs), which are basically high-tech, rack-mounted power-strips, were only able to provide monitoring down to the six-receptacle gang level. Based on the needs of the data centers, a new product able to monitor individual loads is now in the lineup.

Another aspect of that IT point of view comes from managing network infrastructure, where reconfiguring a networked system can be done essentially on the fly. This leads them to expect the same from the power infrastructure, says Walker of Legrand.

“Somebody with an IT background understands networks and modularity,” says Walker. “Now you've got to sell to that person who says, ‘If I can take pre-terminated copper or fiber connections and just plug it in here and unplug it there and plug it in over here and make this change and make that change, and my network's completely reconfigured and I can do it in a weekend, why can't I do that with my power distribution system?’” That change to IT perspective has led to more interest in a line of plug and play power products sold by Legrand's Wiremold unit.

Beat the Heat

Energy efficiency may be the only consideration that has begun to rival uptime on data center operators' priorities list. The U.S. Federal government has recognized this and has made upgrading the efficiency of the data centers that store your tax returns and all the other data collected and used by government agencies a key component of both its environmental efforts — through the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office, which has a goal to reduce the government's data center power use by 10 percent by the end of this year — and its economic stimulus efforts, where data center efficiency upgrades figure significantly in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) program.

Cooling is a data center's biggest single operating cost, so anything that enhances the efficiency of the center's cooling systems will get attention in a data center. It may seem odd, but electrical distributors hoping to work this market need to understand the nuances of cooling efficiency.

Walker says Legrand has been able to get into the cooling discussion by offering racking systems that improve airflow to cool the data centers' servers and advising design consultants on ways to optimize cooling system efficiency by separating the IT space into hot aisles and cold aisles.

At Eaton's data centers, Agar originally intended to recover heat from the UPS equipment to heat the buildings' 10,000 square feet of office space as part of the facilities' pursuit of LEED certification. With an upgrade to Eaton's latest 9395 backup power system, though, Agar's team found the equipment runs so much cooler that they had to rethink how to heat that space.

Opportunity on the Outskirts of Town

Electrical distributors looking to get a share of the data center market may be up against some formidable established competitors, as mentioned above, but there may still be opportunities in the margins. In the early days of the data center market in the U.S., they tended to be clustered in certain regions where there were lots of IT specialists looking for work, or where power prices were significantly lower than elsewhere. In recent years, though, companies have sought to distribute their data centers geographically over a wider area to further insulate themselves from natural or man-made disasters.

The growth of “enterprise-class” data centers where a company houses and controls its own data has spread data centers to sites near just about every mid-size and larger metropolitan area in the United States. There are predictions among data center watchers that the enterprise-class data center market may slow with the growth of virtualization technologies and the opportunity to use software hosted in the cloud, but continuing concerns about data security and the ever-present need to keep records for regulatory compliance argue in favor of companies' owning their own data storage.

Distributors that already have a robust involvement in the local large-commercial market, a decent assortment of datacom lines and connections deep inside the largest companies in the area can find opportunities to supply construction and maintenance supplies to data centers nearby.

Big Data

The biggest single-building data centers are in the million-square-foot range - biggest in the world is @Tokyo at 1.4 million square feet. Biggest in North America is the second-largest in the world, 350 East Cermak in Chicago, with 1.1 million square feet. The ten largest are all more than 400,000 square feet, according to research by the website Data Center Knowledge. Then there are the massive campuses of smaller data centers that power the likes of Google, Amazon and Yahoo!