Big Data, Big Demands

Paul McNerney Director of UK Building
5 min read

The data centre revolution

Data is a dominant element of modern life and storing it is big business. To lead the way in the data centre sector, we have transferred our DfMA 70:60:30 or offsite innovation from other sectors, to help clients meet the rapidly increasing need for space.

Big data operators are demanding a shift to component-led, standardised designs that allow rapid build programmes, efficiencies of scale, and reduced operating costs. The data centre revolution is rapidly emerging, with the sector tipped to become the leading light in industrialised offsite delivery. Laing O’Rourke’s Director of UK Building Paul McNerney tells us more.

Start from the top: what is a data centre? In contrast to a lot of projects undertaken at Laing O’Rourke, data centres are generally functional to look at. Owing to their nature, they are highly secure, private and resilient buildings. But, if you were to step inside, you’d witness something truly remarkable and now essential to our modern ways of life. These immense technological warehouses, between one and four storeys tall, provide huge levels of cooling, power and backup generation for vast halls of servers. It is the nature, scale and repeatability of the mechanical and electrical equipment inside that makes them so ripe for transfer to offsite delivery methodology and the digitisation of their design and operation installation.

Until 15 years ago, the streams of data that powered our early digital lives travelled to and from individual servers with limited connectivity between businesses and society. But, as digitisation from commerce to leisure developed, the need for ever greater levels of interconnection between users and their various streams of data have rapidly moved on. That’s what has made dedicated large scale data centres so vital.

The first wave of data centre development was spawned by so called retail clients, such as online banking. These clients demanded relatively small, bespoke and highly secure facilities. However, as mobile phone and personal computing technology advanced, more of our lives moved online. This massive shift in how we live, alongside the Internet of Things connecting our cars, audio speakers and televisions, even refrigerators has led to exponential growth in need for cloud-based storage. As the tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google increase the span of their products and their connectivity, so too have data centres fast become one of the most sought-after property classes. This rapid growth means the bespoke, tailored characteristics of the first wave of data centres have given way to the demand for centres that can be commoditised, rapidly deployed, made larger and delivered at a lower cost point. This shift is creating the disruption and space for innovation that excites Laing O’Rourke.

Thanks to our DfMA approach, Laing O’Rourke can deliver data centres much faster than competitors and with far less environmental, installation or commissioning risk. These risks are designed out in the digital setting long before the components are eventually manufactured. Whilst size and scale are the dominant issue, we are also engaged in providing smaller infill facilities to provide geographic coverage. The modularisation of mini-data facilities, so called edge data centres, means they can be in use within a matter of weeks.

They are designed for clients who need extra capacity fast, and for emerging countries which may not have the need for full scale data centres, but still need rapidly expanding sources of storage or processing. In fact, the mating of cheaper mobile phones and these edge data centres is allowing the developing world to offer new levels of freedom and connectivity to their people.

Clients involved in the development of data centres are by their very nature digitally sophisticated. This is creating fantastic collaboration around the adoption of leading edge engineering technology. Laing O’Rourke is pioneering digitally-enabled end-to-end processes using 3D virtual models and customer-friendly drag-and-drop software to allow specific designs to be rapidly generated from a standard pallet of products. This is backed up with the ability to manufacture and deliver the products through our own facilities. Clients see this to be quicker, more secure, and more efficient in the development of new server technology - whether that’s for their own use or to rent to the global data community.

The digital model is driving everything. We’re using it through the traditional design and build cycle enabling rapid investment decisions for our clients and real time progress monitoring. However, the big opportunity is using the digital models to then run the data centres.

Laing O’Rourke has become one of the most experienced deliverers of data centres, ratcheting up numerous facilities in the past decade across the UK, Australia and in the United Arab Emirates. In December 2020 the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) recognised the Laing O’Rourke-delivered Khazna Data Centres, as ‘Digital Infrastructure Project of the Year’.

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These projects are technically complex and require engineering that only the most experienced deliverers can get right. The ability to transfer complex, sensitive electrical and mechanical work into a controlled factory environment, where the highest quality standards can be assured, is fundamental to the certainty promise we offer.

Paul McNerney Director of UK Building, Laing O’Rourke

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2019.