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A short introduction to data center commissioning

Data Center

To ensure optimal performance, commissioning is necessary for any type of facility. For a data center, it is essential. 

The thing is, data center commissioning (Cx) requires more phases than the typical commissioning of an office building, as well as a systematically planned implementation. Most traditional commissioning procedures are not suitable for data centers, which have unique characteristics and requirements. 

To ensure that redundancies work as intended, data center commissioning (Cx) examines likely failure modes and then incorporates them into the system. In a nutshell, it ensures that equipment and backup systems run smoothly and efficiently so that everything can be shut down and remain operational when supposed to - during regular maintenance, system upgrade, unforeseen downtime, emergencies, and so on. 

Three types of commissioning

Data center commissioning is generally classified into three main types:

  • Fundamental/New Facility Cx - guarantees structures are delivered according to the Owner's Project Requirements (OPR).
  • Existing Building Cx (EBCx) - for installations that have never been put into operation or have been considerably altered.
  • Continuous Cx (CCx) - an ongoing process that evaluates the energy performance of a building based on continuous data monitoring from baseline to operation. This can include actual Cx trials for a computer room air conditioner, computer room air conditioner maintenance, or uninterruptible power supply battery replacement.

Cx serves as the basis for continuous commissioning, as well as for a data center infrastructure management system that analyzes anomalies and sends notifications in the event of incidents.

Although it is not the only goal of Cx, simulation of failure scenarios is a critical component of the methodology. First, Cx confirms that every part of the infrastructure is operational and that all settings in the data center facility layout are tuned to parameters. Then, if a component is not functioning properly from the start, it is almost certain to fail as soon as the facility is commissioned. In addition, the Cx process is mandatory for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

The process of setting up data center commissioning

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers defines Full Cx as a five-step process:

  1. Factory Witness Testing: The first stage of equipment testing takes place at the factory itself. When you purchase mission-critical equipment from a supplier, the data center owner/operator must specify the testing protocol in its purchase specifications.
  2. Site Acceptance Inspection: Equipment must be tested before it is allowed on the job site as it often does not meet the owner's or operator's specifications, even after initial testing. 
  3. Pre-Functional Testing (PFT): Pre-commissioning testing will verify all equipment functions before it is placed into service. If errors are found during installation, corrective action should be taken to meet standards. The PFT must be repeated for all devices.
  4. Functional Performance Testing: Although all units have already been commissioned and revised, a functional test is required to subject each unit to a full cycle of performance tests in all settings. This is the phase where set points are adjusted and equipment is modified as needed.
  5. Integrated Systems Testing (IST): This is the final reliability test before a data center is opened. The power is suddenly turned off while all systems are running as if an unexpected outage had happened - this is done to check if there is a seamless transition to emergency power with no interruption in cooling.

A new facility should start with a carefully selected Cx agent (CxA) at the design stage. They can identify and correct design errors that have traditionally been the cause of various Cx problems or equipment failures in the past. Furthermore, they should make certain that every piece of equipment is in its place and performing efficiently. 

It’s always a good idea to hire an independent CxA that deals exclusively with mission-critical facilities. In order to find such a CxA, you should ask about the size and type of data centers they contracted in the past, the failure record and its roots, as well as the level of experience of those involved in the Cx process. 

A quick note about testing

A comprehensive test script must be created before integrated device testing, which is another responsibility of the CxA. These scripts, gradually becoming more thorough as the project advances through every design stage, are a critical part of the process. They provide a timeline.

Another thing you want to know is how the CxA will generate results as Cx is an extensive process. The electronic entry data ensures that test results are available to the owner on demand, allowing you to address any issues as soon as they arise so they can be remediated without further wait.

The accuracy of the data can be determined by test protocols which should be comprehensive. Each piece of equipment should be tested by performing a sequential failure followed by a restart and return to stable operation. The design documents should specify who partakes in the Cx process, as well as what test equipment is necessary to justify the time and cost. 

Analyzing and optimizing the performance

As much as it’s complex, EBCx is an important process that can help existing buildings perform as expected and meet current facility requirements. Every few years, an enterprise should recommission its data centers to make sure that everything is still in working condition. 

However, shutting down systems in an operating environment is normally deemed risky but that’s not the real risk - not assessing them at all is. 

That’s why EBCx comes into play. It focuses on improving or optimizing ("tuning") the performance of existing equipment and systems, and identifying low-cost or no-cost operational improvements. In other words - finding out that small problems have a significant impact on performance, then mitigating them.

On a final note, despite some similarities, Uptime Institute Tier Certification is not the same as Cx. The former requires a detailed assessment of the drawings from the standpoint of tier-level criteria. It highlights the fact that Tier Certification of Constructed Facilities should be the next step after the appropriate Cx. Even if the designs are accredited, achieving Uptime benchmarks necessitates a specific variety of audits to attain Tier Certification.