Virtual Commissioning: Delivering New Data Center Capacity in a Pandemic

April 29, 2020
Compass Datacenters used a “virtual commissioning” process to deliver a new data center in Raleigh, using live-streaming cameras and wireless sensors to manage the process remotely, with on-site tasks completed by a small group of staff separated by safe distances.

Data center developers are adapting quickly to the new pandemic practices of social distancing and worker safety, improvising new approaches to delivering new capacity through the COVID-19 health crisis.

Compass Datacenters provided an early example of pandemic-driven innovation this week, sharing an overview of the “virtual commissioning” process it used to complete the testing and certification of a new data center for TierPoint in Raleigh, North Carolina. The company used live-streaming cameras and wireless sensors to manage much of the process remotely, with on-site tasks completed by a small group of staff separated by safe distances.

Compass Chief Innovation Officer Nancy Novak shared details of the project in a blog post, saying that the virtual commissioning “ended up providing us far more recorded data than we would have had with the traditional process.”

“It is conceivable that this commissioning model could become prevalent for data center facilities even after the COVID pandemic subsides,” said Novak. “I can tell you more about this facility than any other one I’ve ever been a part of building, and that same information will be invaluable for future training of every professional that will work at this data center in Raleigh.”

Commissioning is just one of many aspects of data center operations that may be reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is forcing companies to rethink processes that relay on close human interaction, and prompting new thinking on the role of automation in the data center industry.

“Without data centers, many of the things that we are doing collectively – taking care of the sick, continuing our educations, working and staying connected – would not be possible,” Novak writes. “Continuing to build and deliver facilities at this time is extremely important but also requires providers to become more innovative in their procedures.”

Using Technology to Reduce OnSite Staff

The Compass Raleigh project is the latest of a series of facilities that Compass has built for TierPoint, a regional data center provider with 40 sites in 20 U.S. markets. The construction process was completed before the COVID-19 outbreak, but as Compass prepared for Level 5 commissioning, the final step before handing off a facility, it became clear that a new approach was needed to comply with social distancing guidelines.

“Traditionally, commissioning involves a team of 20-25 people crowded into confined spaces to monitor equipment and sensors – neither of which is possible in the COVID era, especially after a number of contracting personnel were forced to self-quarantine,” wrote Novak. “Perhaps exemplifying that necessity is the mother of invention, the team came up with an ingenious solution that to my knowledge is the first time it’s ever been done in the mission critical industry: virtual commissioning using a skeleton crew on-site, a lot of video and sensor equipment, and a larger group working remotely.”

Working via video feeds, sensor readings, phones, texts and walkie-talkies, the Compass team was able to complete the integrated systems testing (IST) that ensures that the data center will operate as designed.

“For anyone who has ever done Level 5 commissioning with IST, you know how many moving parts there are to the process,” said Novak. “But the team anticipated all of that and successfully completed the IST testing in one day and the Uptime redundancy testing on the following day.”

Novak is an advocate of using new technologies to transform data center construction and help diversify the industry workforce. But she admits that she didn’t envision this type of rapid change in a key construction process.

“This isn’t just a first for the industry. I believe it’s a new best practice, and it’s all possible because necessity became the mother of invention,” said Novak. “In fact, I will be working on a hybrid model for commissioning Compass’ facilities going forward that will incorporate virtual elements, even after the social distancing guidelines end.”

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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