Cloud Builders: Data Center Supply Chain is Ripe for Disruption

Nov. 3, 2016
The rapid growth of cloud computing is placing pressure on the supply chain for data centers, testing the ability of equipment manufacturers and developers to meet demand for faster and cheaper delivery of new capacity.

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The rapid growth of cloud computing is placing pressure on the supply chain for data centers, testing the ability of equipment manufacturers and developers to meet demand for new capacity.

As the tech sector’s largest names invest heavily in the cloud, they are looking to quickly deploy tens of thousands of new servers. Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Oracle are working to procure unusually large amounts of data center space. Data center developers are leaning on their supply chain for faster delivery of key electrical and mechanical equipment, including backup generators, UPS units and HVAC equipment.

“We need capacity faster, and in many more places, and we need it to be infinitely scalable,” said Joe Kava, Vice President of Data Centers at Google. “When your demand and supply timelines are very different, that’s not good. Anything that could address that will be important.”

The focus on speed to market has boosted the fortunes of several providers who have demonstrated the ability to execute quickly, including CyrusOne and EdgeConneX. Other data center builders are adapting their data center designs and construction processes to accelerate their delivery timelines.

Kava and other hyperscale executives say cloud growth will drive change in how data centers are built, as the market responds to the timelines of its largest customers. Some of this innovation will emerge from the existing supply chain, but it also creates opportunity for new market entrants. The hyperscale data center operators also have in-house R&D efforts for hardware and design, and have the budget and capacity to create disruptive new approaches.

“The answer will probably be all of the above,” said Kava, who said Google is focused on supply chain innovation. “I want to be the one to replace my current business model with the next one. If you fail to continually improve and innovate, someone else will do it.”

A Challenge for Suppliers

The emerging challenges in the data center supply chain were a hot topic at the 7×24 Exchange Fall Conference in Phoenix last week, where cloud providers, data center developers and equipment vendors discussed the push for quicker deployment of new space.

“Cloud is a huge disrupter,” said Don Beaty, President of DLB Associates, who moderated a panel on the topic. “The suppliers are stressed out trying to meet the needs of hyperscale companies.”[clickToTweet tweet=”Don Beaty: Cloud is a disruptor. Suppliers are stressed out trying to meet the needs of hyperscale companies.” quote=”Don Beaty: Cloud is a disruptor. Suppliers are stressed out trying to meet the needs of hyperscale companies.”]

In the last year, wholesale data center leases have grown in size,  requiring rapid delivery of up to 30 megawatts of capacity. As hyperscale projects grow larger, they require more equipment to support their power and cooling infrastructure. Accelerating production on industrial products like diesel generators and UPS units is particularly difficult, vendors say.

“The on-demand model creates a challenge because you have to provide quite a bit of capacity with limited forecasting,” said Darren Matthews, Vice President of Supply Chain Planning for Schneider Electric, a leading supplier of power and cooling equipment for data centers. “Electrical equipment is so customized. We’re doing this in a very short lead time. Every manufacturer struggles with this.

“A hyperscale project can be a significant component of your labor capacity,” said Matthews. “We’re pushed for shorter lead times, and (data center) owners are wondering how much capacity or inventory a given supplier may have. We have learned to deliver projects more quickly through training, but it’s pretty challenging.”

“It’s a bit of a moving target,” said Nicholas Franzoni, Executive Vice President of Supply Chain Management at Caterpillar, one of the largest suppliers of backup generators. “When there’s fluctuation at the customer level, there’s an impact throughout the distribution network. There are fluid zones in our planning process. You have to build in an agility component.”

“You can put a certain amount of buffer in your capacity planning, but you don’t know where or when that demand will be,” said Jack Pouchet, Vice President of Market Development at Emerson Network Power (soon to be Vertiv), which is a major player in the power and cooling sectors. Pouchet noted that requirements for data center cooling products vary by region and developer preference.

“One size doesn’t solve all,” said Pouchet. “There are a lot of solutions.

“There’s also lots of techniques the industry has been experimenting with,” he added. “There’s a lot of innovation and the industry is converging to deliver better, cheaper and faster.”

CyruOne: Repeatable Design Helps the Supply Chain

Over the past four quarters, CyrusOne has leased more than 112 megawatts of data center space. That includes two projects that showcased the company’s ability to deliver space quickly:

  • A turn-key data hall within a powered shell in Chandler, Arizona, which was delivered in just 107 days.
  • The Sterling II project in Northern Virginia, which went from a dirt field to a finished 30-megawatt data center in six months.

The Sterling project was fully pre-leased to a major cloud provider, and built at a cost of just $6.3 million per megawatt, among the lowest in the industry. The building offers a 16 percent return on invested capital for CyrusOne, above the 11 to 15 percent returns seen for other real estate investment trusts (REITs) specializing in data center construction. (See the company’s white paper for more on this project).

The new CyrusOne San Antonio II data center, which has been leased to a large cloud provider. (Photo: Rich Miller)

CyrusOne executives say the ability to deliver space quickly has helped it win deals from cloud builders who want a lot of space, and want it fast.

“It’s a huge differentiator for these cloud guys,” said John Hatem, the Executive Vice President of Design, Construction and Operations at CyrusOne. “For them, (the quicker deployment time) is all money.”

Rapid deployment requires long-term planning and an optimized design, according to CyrusOne executives. The company also uses pre-fabricated components, including concrete wall panels and supports, along with modular electrical equipment and chillers. It’s hardly alone in using modular power or cooling, but can speed deployment by using a nearby site to pre-assemble power units (which included a UPS, backup generator and transformer in weatherproof containers) into “lineups” for ready deployment as the build progresses.

“Construction for us is a process, not an art,” said Laramie Dorris, the Vice President of Data Center Design and Construction at CyrusOne. “Everything we do in every market is repeatable, and that’s where we get the speed.”[clickToTweet tweet=”CyrusOne: Everything we do in every market is repeatable, and that’s where we get the speed.” quote=”CyrusOne: Everything we do in every market is repeatable, and that’s where we get the speed.”]

Supply chain management is a key part of that process, according to CyrusOne Chief Technology Officer Kevin Timmons.

“We’ve got a consistent design and we’ve established the supply chain,” Timmons said. “We have some really innovative agreements with our key partners, the ones who can hold up builds.”

Timmons didn’t offer details on those innovations. But in Monday’s earnings call, CyrusOne CEO Gary Wojtaszek noted the critical role of supply chain management in the company’s success.

“For the past six years we have been constantly focusing on how we engineer costs out of our design and increase the efficiency of our supply chain,” he said. “This is not something you can achieve quickly and as a result of all the time and attention we spend on this.

“We are designing plans now that will enable us to deliver facilities at less than $5 million per megawatt, which will further reduce the time it takes to deliver the product,” said Wojtaszek, who said the company may offer pricing incentives for customers that can offer longer lead time on their capacity planning.

EdgeConneX: Deployment Model Wins Cloud Business

Another company that has won business with its deployment capabilities is EdgeConneX, which specializes in edge computing facilities for content distribution. The company’s business plan required a rapid rollout of data centers that can operate in an unmanned “lights out” mode. The EdgeConneX design is perhaps the most ambitious example yet of the use of automation to streamline data center operations.

“We have the great advantage of coming in over the last few years,” said Don McNeil, Chief Operating Office of EdgeConneX. “We didn’t have the luggage of legacy to lug around.”

EdgeConneX employs an advanced design and operations template that allows it to rapidly retrofit existing buildings into data centers with Tier III redundancy that can support high-density workloads of more than 20kW per cabinet. The company used this approach to deploy 18 new data centers in 2014.

Cabinets inside an EdgeConneX data center. The company has built a network of data centers focused on the needs of edge content providers. (Image: EdgeConneX)

The company typically retrofits 2 to 4 megawatt facilities, but in recent months has begun building larger, multi-phase data centers for a large cloud provider, widely reported to be Microsoft. After initial cloud-scale builds in Amsterdam and Dublin, EdgeConneX recently bought a 132,000 square foot building in the Elk Grove Village in the Suburban Chicago market.

EdgeConneX has declined comment on its hyperscale projects, but says that proximity for cloud content delivery is an important piece of its business going forward.

“We want to give cloud businesses the right data centers in the right markets,” said Phillip Marangella, Vice President of Business Development for EdgeConneX. “Phase II is all about the cloud.”

Even the companies that are winning business are updating designs as they work to keep pace with cloud demand and timelines.

“The big cloud guys are saying ‘will you be our supply chain?'” said Brian Doricko, Chief Revenue Officer at DuPont Fabros Technology, which has leased 48 megawatts of space already in 2016. “Even as fast as we go in Ashburn (Virginia), it’s not fast enough. We’ve got to get better at that as an industry.”

“The business is coming in incredibly fast,” said CyrusOne CEO Wojtaszek. “We are running at a breakneck speed bringing capacity online to meet customer demand. This is not something we believe is a short-term phenomenon, but something more fundamental that is changing the entire IT landscape.”

“Clearly, we see a move to designing for ease of assembly and manufacture,” said Diraj Bamola, Vice President of Global Design & Construction at Equinix, the world’s largest colocation provider.

Google: Changes Are Coming

Google has a long history of innovation in data centers. In 2006-07, the Google team worked closely with Beaty and DLB to build a new generation of facilities that can operate at greater scale, higher temperature and better efficiency than traditional enterprise data centers.

Kava appreciates the challenge that Google’s growth presents for its supply chain.

“It’s hard trying to predict the future when the present is changing so fast,” he said. “The challenge, frankly, is that we’re going to be releasing many new cloud regions, and a lot of those are in places we’ve never built before.”

It’s Kava’s job to ensure that Google’s growth is never constrained by a shortage of data center space to house servers.

“The opportunity costs of not having capacity are considerable,” he said. “We need to respond quickly to a really dynamic, changing requirement. There are long lead times and the supply chain is complex. Those two things are in conflict with one another.”

A row of cooling towers at a Google data center in Belgium. (Photo: Google)

Kava believes that suppliers have plenty of incentive to adapt their businesses to the needs of the major cloud builders.

“Manufacturers are going to have a disproportionately larger portion of their businesses from a smaller number of hyperscale customers,” he said. “The volume of business is so large that no one equipment manufacturer can handle it all, so everyone will get a chance to play.”[clickToTweet tweet=”Google’s Kava: Manufacturers will get a larger portion of business from a smaller number of hyperscale customers.” quote=”Google’s Kava: Manufacturers will get a larger portion of business from a smaller number of hyperscale customers.”]

When suppliers struggle to keep pace, Google isn’t afraid to develop its own solutions. It has done this with servers, storage and networking equipment, as well as data center design. Facebook and Microsoft have also designed and built custom equipment to support their cloud growth, both in-house and through the Open Compute Project.

Kava doesn’t offer details of what’s in the pipeline, but says Google is keenly focused on ways to reduce its supply chain risk.

“Complacency is a really a death sentence,” said Kava. “Once you start doing things that people once thought impossible, it can be freeing.”

Kava believes that there are best practices from the auto and aerospace industries that can be applied to the challenges facing the data center sector.

“A lot of these problems have been solved before in other industries,” he said. “We need to look at the lessons of the past and bring those lessons to the way we do business. We’ll see new types of construction delivery products. The growth rates are going to be unlike this industry has ever seen before. The best time to disrupt is when times are good.”

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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