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Barriers to data centre knowledge transfer

This article was originally published on Technology.Info.
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The parties involved in the life of a data centre can be broadly split into four distinct roles – client/business, design consultant, installation and commissioning contractor, and operator. Communication between these parties can be complex and is usually influenced by a contractual and commercial arrangement. As a result opportunities for effective transfer of knowledge are limited. Due to the contractual and commercial considerations the transfer of information between these parties is structured, and generally comprises an auditable set of documents that satisfy these contractual requirements as opposed to the actual needs of the facility.

barriers to knowledge transfer by OI

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It is generally accepted that 70-80% of failures in data centres are due to human error or ‘unawareness’. In our experience a similar percentage of energy saving opportunities are also missed due to human unawareness of the possibilities. Both risk and energy fall into the domain of the operations team, and their ‘unawareness’ can only be improved by the effective transfer of information to them. The Kolb learning cycle demonstrates how the effective transfer of knowledge between quadrants is limited by the documentation used to transfer this knowledge, and which is focused on contractual requirements as opposed to the needs of the operator.

It is common for barriers to exist between each quadrant (shown by the yellow lines above), restricting the transfer of knowledge and creating a silo-effect. This increases the risk of failure and the ability for facilities to optimise their operation and in particular minimise energy consumption. Continuous site-specific training, run at the point in the project lifecycle that traditionally coincides with a barrier, bridges the gap between the two segments by providing a common language and opportunity for knowledge and information transfer.

  • Barrier 1 - This opportunity for knowledge transfer occurs between the client and design consultant. In order to get what the client wants, the client should not only identify the key performance requirements – such as watts/cabinet, number of cabinets, PUE, and tier rating - but also the handover criteria such as testing, training, and handover documentation. These are important elements in reducing risk and energy consumption and should be as important in the design brief as any performance factor. At this stage a well thought through design brief is required which has lessons learned from all stages (design, installation/commissioning and operation) of previous projects incorporated into it.
  • Barrier 2 - At the end of the design stage, the specifications and tender documents are passed onto the installation and commissioning contractors who will implement the design. The transfer of information (as opposed to knowledge) at this time has been developed over many years, and the process between consultant and installation contractor is well understood by both parties. However, it is fair to say that consultant specifications generally transfer the risk of missing information onto the installation contractor, who in turn transfers the risk to the specialist suppliers and sub-contractors. The background to the development of the design and a focus on handover processes is rarely a major consideration at this stage as the primary purpose is to achieve a competitive cost for the project. In other words deliver what is specified for the lowest cost.
  • Barrier 3 - At the point of handover from the installation/commissioning team to the operations team, much of the embedded project knowledge is often lost and the operations team is left to look after a live and critical facility with the benefit of only a few hours of training and a set of record documents to support them. Integrated systems testing (IST) is now common on data centre projects, but it is still very much the domain of the project delivery team, with generally only limited involvement of the operations team. The testing is used to satisfy a contractual requirement as opposed to imparting knowledge from the construction phase to the operations phase. Operators therefore don’t feel sufficiently informed to make changes that may improve energy performance, and lack engagement and awareness, which induces risk. This lack of awareness may not be an issue during stable operation, but at times of reduced resilience due to maintenance or failure events, operational errors may arise.
  • Barrier 4 - Clients with multiple facilities often design and build data centres using a similar design specification to previous builds. If problems/good points with the design and operation of past facilities have not been fed back to the client from the three previous quadrants, weaknesses in the delivery of new facilities will be repeated. Although barriers exist between two quadrants, each stage of a construction project needs feedback from the preceding quadrants (not just those adjacent to it) to ensure weaknesses in a design are eliminated and don’t propagate. Without processes to enable this, it’s easy to see how high risk and excessive energy consumption get compounded.

Operational Intelligence was founded on the understanding that significant risk and energy reduction within the data centre could only be achieved through an active engagement with operations teams across all disciplines throughout the project lifecycle. Risk and energy reduction may be the responsibility of an individual, but it can only be delivered if there is commitment from all stakeholders.
To learn more about effective transfer of knowledge between data centre delivery and operations teams, attend Dave Cameron’s workshop taster at the DCA virtual track program at Data Centre EXPO entitled 80% of Catastrophic Failures are Due to the Human Element.