Data Center design: Form follows function

Important guidelines that make a data center complete and successful

American architect Louis Sullivan, the father of modernism, is widely credited with the key axiom of 20th century modern architecture: "Form follows function." That adage is also vital to data center design.

Sullivan put the axiom to work in 1891 in St. Louis with the design of one of the world's first skyscrapers, The Wainwright Building, and more than 110 years later MasterCard Worldwide employed Sullivan's axiom in the design of its data center in suburban St. Louis.

Indeed, when planning to update or construct a data center, functional requirements determine the design, old ideas mesh with new and technological advances feed a progressive approach. To maximize a data center build-out designers should examine three key concepts with "form follows function" axiom in mind: agility, reliability and cost.


While it may be peculiar to regard a mostly rigid, staid structure as agile, a data center requires agility to meet business demands. Agility in a data center is the ability to sense and react efficiently and effectively to environmental change. For better agility, a data center's form should follow its function:

  • Make sure the raised floor and incorporated under-floor cable-tray system are of the right height and dimensions to facilitate organization and easy access for installation and equipment upgrades.

  • Incorporate an equipment staging area separate from, but with proximity to, the data center. Shedding cartons, crates and packing materials outside the data center helps prevent contamination from dust and debris.

  • When building a data center, design the floor to be level with adjacent floors, eliminating the need for entry ramps and making load-in and -out easier and safer.

  • Construct a loading dock adjacent to the data center. A dock avoids the need for an external ramp, also making it easier to move large equipment in and out. Maximize ceiling height within the data center to facilitate heat dissipation and reduce server cooling costs.

  • Incorporate hot/cold aisle controlled airflow layout, which can be essential in diminishing the risk of overheating and damaging equipment in enclosures and cabinets. By segregating cold air intakes (generally the front of equipment cabinets) from hot exhaust (typically expelled behind the cabinets), the direct transfer of hot exhaust air from one machine to the intake of another is nearly eliminated.

  • Don't skimp on floor space. Plan for growth to meet data center demands for additional processing capability energy supplies, as well as increased storage capacity. And don't forget service requirements; ensure that your design allows for easy access by technicians as well as equipment movement. By outlining your anticipated requirements and the footprint of the equipment on the floor, you'll avoid overlooking important requirements.

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