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Adam Smith: The man who built a data centre in 6 months flat

In six months, Adam Smith and his web hosting company TSOHost went from sharing server racks in other people's data centres, to having built a data centre of their own.

I met Adam to speak about the trials, challenges and steep learning curves involved in building your own data centre.

"It's always been my dream to own a data centre," Adam told me. "That's not the dream most people have, but it was mine."

"I started this company from my mum's bedroom, back when I was screwing servers together with a screwdriver," he told me. "It's moved on a bit from there, but I've always loved servers. I've always loved to know how things work."

It was just over six months ago that Adam and his colleagues decided that 2013 was the year that they would build a data centre.

"We needed to take control"

"I've always had it in the back of my mind that I'd do it," Adam told me. "We needed control over the power infrastructure of our server rooms. Our needs just weren't being met by co-location. We'd been in facilities that had outages, and we needed to take control of that."

"At the end of the day, we're not a data centre company, we're a hosted services company. The data centre's just a platform from which we can deliver the things we actually make money from. It just needs to keep the servers running, and from co-location we weren't getting that."

"The moment came when me and Seb, one of the other directors, were walking around some prospective buildings for the first time, and imagining them as data centres," Adam said. "We tried to picture how each one would look as a data centre, and that was the point at which we realised we knew what we were doing."

"Building a data centre is something I always planned to do, since I started in co-location in 2004. In terms of it actually being financially realistic, in 2012 we thought it was likely, and the in 2013 we knew it was actually viable. At that point we were still looking at third parties to build it for us."

"Cutting corners to line someone else's pockets"

So what made them take the decision to strike out on their own?

"Their pitches were weak," Adam said. "We had the knowledge by then, after years of sharing other people's data centres. We could see where the corners were being cut to boost the contractors' profit margins. We didn't want to be cutting corners to line someone else's pockets, so we decided to take their profit margins, and not spend any less, but just invest those in infrastructure."

"I'd had nearly a decade of experience working with co-location companies," Adam told me. "I knew how a data centre was run; I knew about the structure, and how it needed to look. But building one myself was something completely different."

"What I didn't know about was things like whether we needed planning permission to build a data centre, how to choose the correct cable sizes and so on."

Choosing the right contractors was also a huge part of the challenge.

"You can't just go and get any electrician off the street," Adam said. "You need someone who has a proven track record, someone with the correct qualifications and the right experience."

"We knew we had to modify a building set up for something different, and turn it into a data centre. For example, we had a very large gas supply from the previous occupiers of the building, right in the middle of our data centre. Obviously that had to go. We also had to raise the floor by 40cm to allow the airflow to pass beneath the floor."

A big learning curve

So what were the biggest challenges the team faced?

"Cooling, and thermodynamics," Adam said with a sigh. "That was obviously quite a big learning curve. Making sure the cooling system was efficient, making sure it was reliable, because a cooling outage is arguably just as bad as a power outage."

His voice took an animated tone.

"If you have a cooling outage, the servers will get very hot very fast, and the servers will literally shut down to protect the components. That can be worse than a power outage, because you have to get all that heat out of the building before you can restart. And if the servers don't shut down, there's the chance that something will be damaged."

Or worse: start a fire.

"The fire suppression system was a big learning curve for us. Obviously you can't test it with a live fire, so you need to be absolutely confident that the system you've designed will suppress the fire anywhere in the room, and at any intensity – and that it won't deploy accidentally. It also needs to be non-lethal. No one wants It's got to be safe to use, and safe to deploy."

"You also have physical concerns. Access controls, security – who gets to go in and out of the building. There was a big learning curve there."

"The biggest resource for you is the people you employ to do the job. If you're engaging a contractor, and you're talking about a six-figure contract, they're quite happy to spend a lot of time with you in the planning stages."

"There aren't many companies of our size who would want to do a project like this," Adam told me.

The reliable supply of electricity to the building was the biggest problem the team faced. At one point, a lack of planning permission for an electricity substation outside threatened to scupper the whole project.

"They thought it would ruin the look of the industrial estate," Adam told me with a smile. "I'm not joking."

"A massive relief"

"We spent a lot of time in planning meetings, and choosing between the different contractors, so we could choose the best one that would deliver the best particular area of expertise."

"So we interviewed a lot of different people for the cabling, the switch gear, all the automation controls. We had six different companies bid for that."

So how did it feel when the generators started spinning, the servers started humming, and the ribbon was cut on TSOHost's brand new data centre?

"It was a massive relief," Adam said, after some thought. "There was a great sense of achievement, too, that we'd taken this building that used to be a warehouse, and turned it into a data centre. It's something we can be proud of. We're confident in the quality of it, too, because we know every single nut and bolt that went into it."

"I'm still not sure my mum understands what I do for a living," Adam said with a mischievous look. "She came to see the place, when it opened, and she knows I come home with money somehow. I know she's proud, but I'm pretty sure she has no idea what I do."