TREND: Shortage of Data Center Designers

by Regular Contributor on ‎03-23-2010 12:29 PM

Chad Dozier, Caterpillar Electric Power Division

I recently read the article in Data Center Journal by Jeffrey Clark titled "Where Are the Data Center Design Engineers?" It's about the shortage of experienced data center design engineers.

Some key points from his article:
  • Data centers use additional, more sophisticated equipment, increasing the complexity of the design.
  • Reliability is key – 95% uptime is not enough.
  • The current applicant pool for design engineering positions is limited.

My experience tells me the following:
  • Successful datacenter design involves multiple groups (manufacturers, sales force, consultants, contractors, regulatory agencies/boards and end-users).
  • These groups become involved at varying stages in the project design.
  • Every project is different and a formulaic approach may not always result in the most successful strategy.

In light of current trends... I have a few questions.
  • Is this a real or perceived shortage of design engineers?
  • What is your experience in data centers projects (or other mission critical type projects)?
  • What parties are involved and at where do they enter the project timeline?
  • Do end-users typically have vendor preferences or do they leave it up to the consultants?
  • If we are indeed experiencing a shortage of data center designers… who can take on this role? Will consultants/contractors look more to manufacturers for input on which and how electric power products should be combined for maximum reliability/system redundancy?

Please share your thoughts by posting below.

Comments
by Visitor danieljlarouche
on ‎03-31-2010 07:12 AM

Chad,

Some thoughts to get the dialog going regarding your questions:

* Shortage: Overall there seems to be a shortage in all engineering disciplines. However, I think that all industries are just starting to understand the magnitude of their business vulnerability to the function of their knowledge management systems. So, at least regarding data center reliability, I think that this is an emerging demand that can be filled organically (at least until academia complicates it).

* My experience with data centers was with Schlumberger Well Services as a Project Manager for Wireline Units. Our Wireline Units were mobile (trucks, offshore, heliportable) data centers. The job of the Wireline Unit was to get the computer and data acquisition electronics to the well site in good condition, and than provide the necessary power and operating environment suitable for flawless computer operation. This was an interesting design exercise when operations range from Saudi Arabia, to the North slope of Alaska, to the Gulf Coast.

* Parties that should be involved: 3rd party "architect"/project manager, user, facility manager, contractor, utility, power equipment supplier, commissioner. All are involved from day one.

* The end user is the decision maker, but the 3rd party "architect" manages the performance and reliability specifications.

* The designer must be a third party consultant. Everyone else typically has either a short term, or compensation based bias.

 

Just some opinions.

 

Daniel J. LaRouche, President

Performance and Reliability Group, Inc.

by New member DaveKing2010
on ‎03-31-2010 01:14 PM

Hello Chad,

 

I'd have to agree that there is a general shortage of design engineers in most disciplines. I often worry that when enough "graybeards" retire, they're going to be awfully hard to replace. Companies don't seem to understand that a relatively small number of key individual engineers comprise their corporate knowledge base and when these individuals are gone, so is their "corporate knowledge". I've seen the consequences of this shortsighted tendency over and over again.

 

I am also seeing a current trend where "design engineers" (or even end users who don't have any design engineers) have a tendency to seek technical proposals from technology licenser or manufacturers/vendors, which then becomes the "design". There aren't many engineers left that have quality hands-on experience and intimate knowledge of heavy industry operations, for example, petrochemicals or natural gas processing, who can actually develop an optimized design. Chad is correct in saying that every project is different and a formulaic approach is not always the best strategy.

 

Every design (e.g., a processing plant) should be optimized for the specific project situation and considerable economic incentive typically exists for doing so.  Unfortunately, knowledge of this fact is often missing as well. Many company managers (decision makers) have grown up in the current environment, so they frequently lack the background or experience to understand the value of true design engineering or of those who possess the skills and knowledge to actually design. Short of design optimization, I believe that it is at least incumbent on end users to seek the best combination of appropriate technologies, but that takes effort and knowledge also.

 

I recently developed a preliminary design for a client that would have captured optimization upside in the range of a couple of hundred million dollars (PV) with no sacrifice in operability or reliability. Unfortunately, a decision was made to avoid the "cost and schedule delay" of detailed engineering to build an optimized processing plant. The tradeoff was on the order of spending a few million dollars to capture hundreds of millions (including the real cost of a short schedule slip). It was expedient to go to a packager and build an "industry standard" processing plant. Adding insult is the typical press release announcing the new plant as a "state-of-the-art" plant! Truthfully, the "industry standard" variation typically employs several unnecessary, capital intensive processes along with significant wasted energy and utilizes other out-dated processes from long-expired patents. Does this sound like design engineering? But as Daniel LaRouche explains in his blog, the end user is the decision maker. In that regard, the end user is shaping the future of design engineering by virtue of their decisions. Design engineering is in effect, being designed out of the system. That should scare us.

 

For a manufacturer like Caterpillar, there is opportunity for you in this environment to engineer and package as much as possible. For example, considering generators, Cat should design and package generators and all ancillaries, such as lube oil systems, cooling systems, electrical gear and ultimately "plug & play" generator systems. I believe you already do this to some extent. Perhaps strategic alliances or mergers??

 

Well, I've probably said enough here to generate some additional discussion, so I'll look forward to what others have to say. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

 

Dave King   

by Visitor muralcr
on ‎04-01-2010 02:50 AM

i am an ex Caterpillar application engineer working as consultant for MEP design of several type of buildings and yes  Its not just design engineers but shortage of project excuation team who can understand basic design aspects,i feel some where we should start educating project owners.sponcers and all stake holders, i get frustarated explaining impartance of flow rates,Pressure drops,cable sizing even ambient temperatures role in performance of DGset or airconditioning plant.

 

regards

muralidhar

by Visitor danieljlarouche
on ‎04-01-2010 06:31 AM

It seems to me that we are all agreeing on the idea that at the start, if life cycle costs are considered, off-the-shelf solutions are not the best way to go. So, the term "design" cannot be taken lightly.

 

If we accept that premise, than if I was an end user, I would want a team who understands the long term implications (e.g.. costs) of  their "design" as it applies to my particular situation. Unfortunately most end users do not understand life cycle costs or they are part of an organization that is driven by short term financial results. If that is the case, than the end user would want a quick "solution" that has press release potential. They will let there replacement deal with the resulting costs.

 

The good news is that business sustainability and life cycle costs are starting to become board level concerns. So if I was Caterpillar, I would be teaching clients about the life cycle costs associated with poorly developed designs. Than I would have a list of preselected experts who can come together to design and implement a custom solution within off-the-shelf timing. That is easier said than done, but for mission critical applications that is where I think the market is headed.

 

For Chad to consider - is Caterpillar ready to think long term and is its organization adaptable enough?

by
on ‎10-15-2010 01:06 PM

Chad,

 

While Caterpillar certainly builds a quality product, wouldn't you agree the real strength is the dealer network that supports it?  I believe the local dealer plays a critical role in Mr. Larouche's question above. 

 

I see this as an opportunity for dealers to take definitive action to grow both their understanding of optimal data center design then provide advice and a complete portfolio of integrated solutions to these customers which both provide measurable added value to the end-user.

 

Most data centers are accustomed to consulting with several different companies for generator sets, paralleling switchgear and/or automatic transfer switches, uninterruptible power supply, batteries, room cooling, racking, and RPPs/PDUs.  In my experience, some of these equipment suppliers are represented near the project, most are not.  Most pre-sale and post-sale activities are accomplished via phone and email and product support response is often a challenge.

 

My question is, if a local CAT dealer steps up and invests sufficiently in this business to become an expert source of a complete product portfolio, including products CAT does not offer, and provides quality on-site product support for the entire system, is this something of value to data center developers or is the status quo acceptable?

 

Kind regards, 

 

Keith

by Trusted Contributor
on ‎10-15-2010 01:23 PM

I have to concur that the dealer network is the specific theme.  Specific regions have more data center demands and ability.  The challenge is that not all parts of the country have the same opportunity.  What usually happens is nationwide engineering firms or consultants end up in a new area with a dealer that is inexperienced or very experienced.  Years ago CAT used to have "center of excellence" designations for certain dealers with key expertise and exposure to accounts and/or applications.  The benefit of this was to have others be able to draw upon their knowledge in lessons learned both good and bad and share.  CAT as a whole is focused on the manufacturing side whereas the dealer is now the application experts.  The other item that is not mentioned is the liability of the design and application.  Datacenters can be high risk and therefore expose alot of parties if not properly thought out.  In the US the Bay Area, CA (Oakland, San Fran) and D.C (any govt and banking area ) are the most obvious areas that stick out to me that have high exposure in the datacenter areas.  The D.C/Virginia area is probably still decent for design specs and need where out West was lucky to get the DOTCOM explosion early on.  Numerous parties will always be involved in my mind for the experience.  As for CAT- I can see the switchgear and UPS markets heeding the engineering support call, but standard engine applications have many gaps which may challenge bid specs and redundancy needs for consulting engineers.  

I agree with Keith that certain dealers will think outside the box... they have to capture the business.  The real trick is how soon CAT reacts to that knowledge and shares it.  

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