Site Visit: Data Delivery

Nova give a tour of the UAE's first purpose-built data centre

Work in its final stages in the building's switchgear rooms.
Work in its final stages in the building's switchgear rooms.

Client Gulf Data Hub and specialist contractor Nova Corporation give a tour of the UAE’s first purpose-built data centre in Dubai’s Silicon Oasis – a project where MEP takes centre stage

Taking shape just a short distance from the heart of Dubai’s Silicon Oasis is a pioneering project that is set to transform the market for data storage in the region. Gulf Data Hub is, perhaps surprisingly, the first purpose-built commercial data centre in the UAE.

It is now gearing up for the launch of its first phase after a painstaking construction process of just over two years, which has involved one of most MEP-intensive projects the region has ever seen.


Now undergoing commissioning, the project’s first phase consists of a building (Dubai 1) of 13,240m² with a ground and upper floor level that has 3,000m² of physical data server space.

In total, the site on which Dubai 1 is built has room for another five buildings of similar size, one of which (Dubai 2) already has its shell constructed.

Construction of future phases is dependent on market response to the facility, says David Roskilly, projects technical director for client Gulf Data Hub, but he is confident that the site will eventually be at full capacity.

The firm responsible for delivering the intricate design and construction of the project’s first phase is US-based data centre specialist Nova Mission Critical Contracting. It has been supported by Sigma Engineering which was contracted to perform MEP installation duties.

Roskilly explains that Nova was chosen because of its experience in delivering “international-standard data centre[s]”, having worked extensively in the US, as well as the UK, Ireland, Italy and Singapore. It also had local experience, having worked on smaller projects for the public sector around the region since it established a presence here five years ago.

Nova was awarded the contract for the project in late July of 2011 and got straight to work on its portion of the data centre’s design. It eventually mobilised onsite in late November of that year prior to groundbreaking in January 2012.

While Nova could call upon its wealth of international experience in delivering the project, executive vice president of operations Robert Pappas explains that its execution wasn’t just as simple as copying its work on other projects in other regions.

“Nova’s design is always sensitive to the region and the climate. There are mechanical systems, more than electrical, that are affected by the climate. We use an air-cooled system here rather than open cooling towers because of the constraints of the region.

“[On this project], the main concerns are the very high ambient temperatures in the summer months. The airborne silt and sand is why we didn’t use an open cooling system, which some people might use.

“It also requires a great deal of water for evaporation and water is a very precious commodity here. It’s in limited supply and we didn’t want to have that problem, so we used air-cooled chillers,” he adds.

As for the electrical design, Pappas says that it is fairly common due to its immunity to climatic extremes. Although, Roskilly adds, the electrical utility requirements are quite different compared to other regions.

The utility yard itself contains three air-cooled chillers, providing cooling for the entire building, along with slots for a total of five transformers from Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) as the load required by the building grows with the expected gradual increase in business.

Just outside the yard is the bulk diesel fuel storage which feeds three day tanks in the building, in addition to a bulk storage for fire protection.

In the event of a fire, the building’s sensitive areas are covered by a pre-action fire protection system. Sensing fire and smoke levels in various zones around the building, the system activates once certain levels are reached in two of those zones.

Only then does water enter the pipe in those zones to extinguish the fire. The reason for the design of this system, as Pappas puts it, is that “water and server rooms don’t mix well,” and the potential for their coming together must be minimised at every opportunity to ensure that the customers’ data on those servers is protected and preserved.

This sensitivity also extends to the electrical design of the building, which needs to ensure that the servers are kept powered at all times.

The project is rated as a “Tier 3” facility, which in data centre parlance means that it has multiple power and cooling sources, though only one is active at a time, and can offer an uptime of 99.982%. Pappas says “there’s not much Tier 3 in the region and certainly nothing of this size.”

If a utility outage does occur, the aforementioned bulk diesel fuel strorage is stocked to feed three day tanks that in turn feed three huge 2.5 megawatt (MW) Cummins generators which activate to maintain power to the building.

Further protection is provided by the building’s double switchgear line-up system which provides two supplies to each data server equipment cabinet through an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) system.

These “A” and “B” supplies both run at less than 50% capacity, meaning that one can fail or be taken out for maintenance and the other will seamlessly make up the difference in the load.

“Most servers designed to go into this kind of facility have two power points: an ‘A’ and a ‘B’,” says Pappas. “We can lose the entire infrastructure of either side and the equipment would still run.”

Another distinctive aspect to the project is its layout. The ground floor of the building is almost entirely devoted to the data centre’s MEP requirements which, Roskilly says, took up 65 to 70% of the project’s entire budget. It vertically feeds the data server rooms on the floor above, a design which, Pappas explains, is simply more efficient.

“A typical building is going to use about 10 to 15 watts per square foot,” he says. “This building is going to consume close to 200 watts per square foot – so, around 20 times more. That means 20 times more cooper for power distribution and 20 times more pipe for cooling distribution. A distribution system that enables you to shorten the lengths involved will save money.”

While minimising the total expenditure on the project was, of course, a priority, Roskilly says that Gulf Data Hub were willing to make a considerable investment in the project’s MEP to ensure it got long-term value for money.

“In terms of space versus power, we would rather use all the [available] power and not all the space, rather than the other way round,” he says. “We can build more physical space a lot cheaper than we can build further MEP infrastructure.”

As for the installation of the existing infrastructure, both Roskilly and Pappas say it has gone as smoothly as could be expected, although the project has run beyond its initial handover deadline of July 2013.

The reason for this is explained away as typical issues faced by any project, where work takes longer than initially expected as each team member is forced to learn some unfamiliar lessons.

Roskilly says he and Gulf Data Hub have “learned a lot about data centres during the process,” while Pappas says that, for him, “understanding the cultural differences” in work practices was a challenge. “That’s not a criticism of [the region], it’s a criticism of me,” he explains.

Meanwhile, for MEP contractor Sigma Engineering, the project was the first data centre it had ever tackled. “I think they would say that it has been a learning process for them too,” says Pappas.

“That’s not to criticise them. There have been challenges but I don’t think it would have been any different with any other contractor in the region, only by virtue of the fact that nobody has had the opportunity to work on a data centre of this scale at this level of redundancy and reliability. It’s new for the region.”

Authoritative works
With such a power-intensive project, Gulf Data Hub has had to work closely with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) to ensure that the building meets the utility’s exacting standards.

However, since the project is the first-of-its-kind in Dubai, the authority and the client have had no real precedent against which they could benchmark.

“We’ve learned a lot from the process with DEWA,” says David Roskilly, projects technical director for Gulf Data Hub. “When we come to do the next building we will know the process a lot better. It seems that you can’t learn DEWA’s process beforehand: the only way to learn it is to go through it. You can’t go to DEWA and say ‘what do we have to do?’ They will give you the first step but won’t give you any steps beyond that.”

However, Roskilly is sympathetic to the authority’s position.

“They’ve obviously got their infrastructure to protect. I wouldn’t be critical of them because they’ve done what they needed to do,” he says.

“DEWA has come up with the goods. We’re physically connected, although we don’t have the power activated yet and we’re on the very last stage of the approval now,” he adds.

Taking the leed
For a building that will require such a huge amount of power to operate, it is interesting to learn that Gulf Data Hub is set to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating.

“With regards to LEED we are only targeting basic certification,” says Roskilly (pictured right). “The prime aspects of this are minimal water use by using air-cooled chillers and the minimum solar gain within the building, which was easily achieved as generally data centres don’t have any external windows.”

“We also ensured that materials were sourced locally and with recycled content,” Pappas (left) adds. “The design also incorporates low-flow plumbing fixtures to conserve water as well as environmentally-friendly refrigerants.”

Beyond Gulf Data Hub, Nova Corporation and Sigma Engineering, other members of the construction team which have helped to achieve this rating were data centre design architect, Gensler; data centre design engineer, Ove Arup; structural design engineer, Thornton Thomasetti; and general contractor, E.C.C McLaren.

The project has also been built to Uptime Institute, BICSI and TIA 942 standards.

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