BMS and the Data Center

July 10, 2012 3 Comments »
BMS and the Data Center

Most commercial buildings today integrate a number of different systems, ranging from power distribution to heating and cooling to physical security. Perhaps no facility is a better example than the data center. In addition to maintaining the type of environment that enables employee productivity, the data center must also enable continuous (and, preferably, efficient) operation of sensitive IT equipment and networks. But keeping eyes on all the systems necessary for a functioning data center is virtually impossible—unless you go the route of automation using some form of management system.

Building Management Systems in the Data Center

Even ignoring for the moment the requisite network and compute resources required to operate an IT facility, a typical data center must provide consistent, clean power—even in the event of a utility outage—as well as cooling, physical site security, lighting, fire suppression and other systems. Although many of these are common to a typical office building, their use in a data center requires added capabilities or special measures owing to their use around IT equipment: for instance, fire suppression should ideally enable extinguishing fires without destroying servers and other equipment.

Even with monitoring equipment in place—such as temperature and humidity sensors, power monitoring, various security measures and so on—it would be impractical (not to mention expensive) to hire sufficient personnel to record measurements or simply keep an eye on all these different aspects of the facility. In the pursuit of both reducing costs and maximizing uptime, companies thus often turn to automation. In this case, automation can be attained through the use of a building management system (BMS).

A BMS handles the work of monitoring and recording data for various infrastructure systems. It also can adjust the operation of these systems automatically to maximize uptime and increase operating efficiency. Below are a few areas where building management systems can play an important role in the data center.

  • Physical site security. A BMS can record who is entering secure areas of a facility via key cards or biometrics. Furthermore, it can implement various access-control measures, such as limiting access during certain times of the day or permitting certain personnel access to some areas but not others.
  • Lighting control. Servers may not need light to work, but people do. Unfortunately, owing to neglect or simply impracticality, lighting can become a major source of energy waste and thus decreased efficiency. A BMS can ensure that lights are shut off during off hours or when no motion is detected in a given area for some specified span of time.
  • Effective, efficient cooling. As data centers move toward free cooling, air-side or water-side economizers and traditional mechanical cooling must function together in a manner that maximizes efficiency but still protects IT equipment. Here, a BMS can balance these considerations—for instance, to run in economizer mode when the outside temperature is sufficiently low but to switch to CRAC units or water chillers when extra cooling is needed. Part of this capability owes to the BMS recording and monitoring temperature and humidity data throughout the facility. If a hot spot develops, for instance, the BMS could increase air circulation at that point (if possible) or simply increase cooling to the appropriate area (or the entire facility).
  • Power distribution. Ensuring steady, clean power reaches the IT equipment is critical to keeping the data center running. The BMS can monitor power conditions and provide alerts in the event of certain conditions that might indicate a failure at some point in the power distribution system. In addition, the BMS can record data on power usage and conditions, enabling analysis for potential problems.

The monitoring and data collection capabilities of a building management system enable both real-time awareness of conditions in the data center as well as analysis of collected data to identify problems before they affect uptime. Some features of a good BMS include the following.

  • Alerts indicating conditions that threaten security, safety or uptime. The presence of hot spots, fluctuating power conditions or unauthorized access to certain areas of a facility may call for immediate action. By keeping a virtual eye on the data center, the BMS can call attention to situations that either are problematic or that require review to prevent a problem from occurring.
  • Remote monitoring capability. A good BMS doesn’t necessitate that someone be sitting in the data center eyeing a computer screen at all times. When equipped with remote monitoring and alerts, the BMS can enable a data center manager to keep an eye on conditions from another location—such as at home on a desktop computer or on the road via a laptop or tablet.
  • Data collection. The building management system, in addition to providing alerts, can collect data for analysis. By examining trends in collected data, such as power conditions or temperature readings, facility managers can identify areas that could cause problems in the future or that require maintenance. This approach can increase uptime by dealing with issues before they bring down the data center.
  • Maintenance scheduling. Data center maintenance is critical to keeping systems functioning. A BMS can indicate when infrastructure requires regularly scheduled maintenance, or when conditions merit preemptive maintenance to avoid a problem before it causes downtime. Automated maintenance reminders can prevent day-to-day tasks from causing employees and managers to forget periodic tasks that are necessary to the ongoing health of the facility.
  • Enable planning and upgrades. The information that a BMS collects, in addition to providing a basis for maintenance and troubleshooting, can aid in planning for data center expansions or upgrades. For instance, power usage data relative to maximum capacity might indicate the need for greater capacity when additional IT equipment is installed.
  • Improve efficiency. Hardly the least concern of data center managers is increasing the efficiency of their facilities. Data collected by the BMS can be critical to determining which measures will increase efficiency and (potentially) by how much.

A building management system generally focuses on data center facilities—IT, however, is a separate area. In some sense, a BMS could be considered a subset of the functions included in data center infrastructure management (DCIM). In the quest for greater integration and ultimate single-pane-of-glass monitoring and control of the data center, then, a BMS might in some cases be considered outmoded in favor of a broader solution that takes into account monitoring and controlling all aspects of the data center, including IT. On the other hand, if you include IT functions in the scope of a BMS, then data center infrastructure management is simply a type of building management system specific to the needs of IT facilities.

Regardless of whether you differentiate DCIM from BMS, these systems illustrate the move of data centers toward greater integration of various systems and the quest for centralized control and monitoring of the entire facility. A BMS enables data center managers to more promptly respond to problems as well as to identify, diagnose and address potential problems before they affect operations.

Photo courtesy of Tom Raftery

About Jeff Clark

Jeff Clark is editor for the Data Center Journal. He holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Richmond, as well as master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech. An author and aspiring renaissance man, his interests range from quantum mechanics and processor technology to drawing and philosophy.

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