A look at how data center owners can better navigate the complex risks and requirements of contractor management.

Data centers are easily among the most valuable physical assets a business can have, so it’s no surprise we’ve seen them continue to spring up at a rapid pace in recent years. These clusters of servers and storage systems function as digital safehouses for a company’s most critical client data and sensitive internal information.

They also serve as a prime practical example of the complexities and nuances of contractor management.

The Stakes for Data Centers

Stored in dedicated locations, data servers require a precise configuration of environmental factors in order to stay up and running. This tends to be a delicate matter -- the surrounding temperature and air flow must be just right. On top of that, the building’s energy grid has to be able to sustain the high load of 24/7-running high-powered servers without overloading.

As you might imagine, the physical construction and maintenance of these data centers can get complicated. The quickly growing number of data centers, along with the frequent need for on-site upgrades and retrofitting, has resulted in an influx of contractor and subcontractor work. Issues can (and do) arise when these contractors aren’t experienced in working with the unique challenges of a data center.

Failure Is Not an Option

It is absolutely essential for data centers to operate in perfect continuity. The risks of having a data center go down even for a short time -- or worse, be compromised -- are immense. Not only is there a potentially devastating liability issue, there’s also a loss of trust on the customer side. Nobody wants their crucial data to be inaccessible, stolen, or lost -- these are incidents that can take an entire company down.

In contractor-related cases, customers aren’t likely to blame the contractor -- they’re holding the data center owner accountable. It’s easy to see why contractors that aren’t experts in the precise workings of data centers can pose a significant risk if not managed properly. What’s more, different types of data centers require specific scopes of work. 

Greenfield vs. Brownfield Data Centers

There are two main types of construction within the data center world: greenfield  is new build more often than not from the ground-up developments, whereas brownfield is contractors working within an operational data center. Making things slightly more complex, contracted work can differ between the two types. For example, with the rapid evolution of technology and the growing amount of data housed, there is an almost constant need for retrofitting and maintenance, specifically within  the operational data center.

Challenges of Contractor Management at Data Centers

The potential challenges begin with construction. Typically, any data center construction project will begin with a preplanned scope of work that spans across an array of contractors. Issues can arise when contractors have limited technical knowledge of the entire system. Simply following blueprints may lead to oversights when it comes to understanding how the different systems in a data center work together.

A center only truly works when its systems are interacting in perfect synergy -- this means that the safety systems, temperature systems, airflow systems, security systems and power systems all need to be precisely in tune. Construction missteps can be costly, especially those only discovered later. It’s also worth considering that many brownfield sites were not initially built with scaling or safety in mind and might need some heavy structural modifications.

What often tends to slow down contracted work is a lack of robust documentation. When there is a misstep in contracted work, the M.O.P.s (Method of Procedures) that were issued for specific work must be changed or completely re-written. As you might guess, the result is a project timeline that gets stretched out and bogged down.

It’s extra-important in the context of a data center to ensure that all parties are following a clearly-defined and detailed process of operation. The most common cause of incidents is not failure to have a process in place, but making sure that it's actually followed. This can be especially tough to guarantee when you have several teams of contractors working in a delicate environment.

Mitigating the risks associated with contract work isn’t always as simple as hiring data center-experienced professionals. Because of the saturation of data centers and the fact that many of them are located in remote areas around the country, there’s often a shortage of skilled workers suited for the job. This means companies have the choice between hiring relatively inexperienced contractors or paying a premium and going through the process of finding and porting in an experienced professional.

So, what can data center owners do to help better manage their contract work?

Keys to Overcoming Contractor Management Challenges

You can cover a lot of preventative ground by focusing on three big areas for improvement: planning, documentation, and foresight.

  • Doubling down on your planning efforts can help ensure that you’re never pressed up against the sharp side of a deadline. A deep, detailed plan can help avoid pressure situations where you’re tempted to cut corners and potentially create incident-prone environments.
  • The increased security measures surrounding data centers means that contractors will have to spend more time entering and leaving the job. Ensure that their expectations are calibrated to the needs of the sensitive environment by creating M.O.P.s that accommodate these extra requirements.
  • Create a robust pre-qualification process for contractors. Define what sort of competencies your work requires and keep an eye out for those with past work experience in similar critical-value environments.
  • Develop and foster a team attitude from early on. Project managers and contractors sometimes invoke an “us” vs “them” attitude that can impede communication and slow down project activity. One solution is to involve contractors earlier in the process to incorporate their technical expertise while emphasizing a project partnership.
  • Keep safety in mind throughout all of your planning and design. Thinking proactively can save a great deal of time and effort down the line.

How Antea Group Can Help with Contractor Management in Data Centers

If the complex, high-stakes puzzle of contractor management in data center ownership feels like new territory, you’re not alone.

We can help. Antea Group has years of experience working with contractors and data center owners in this domain and we understand the realities of both sides. Because of this, we’re extremely well-equipped to help you navigate the field of risks and requirements unique to this kind of project.

Find out how we can help bridge the gap between your management and your contractors. Learn more and contact us here.

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