Data Centers

A look inside ViaWest's innovative and ultrasecure Minnesota data center

Getting into the year-old ViaWest data center in Minnesota either physically or digitally is not simple, and that's a good thing.

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Entrance at the ViaWest data center in Chaska, Minnesota.
Image: Michael P. Kassner

I was invited to tour the ViaWest data center in Chaska, Minnesota. I imagined a long, nondescript building with steam pouring from cooling towers, connected to thick power lines, and monstrous backup generators alongside the building. What I didn't envision were two gates at the entrance — more or less a car trap.

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Image: ViaWest
Not wanting to get stuck in between the gates, I called Dan Curry, regional director of sales for ViaWest and my contact for the visit. Curry explained that just past the first gate is a call box. Once I talk to the security desk, Curry assured me, the sliding second gate would open, and I could drive into the parking lot. Later, I would learn the imposing fence and gate system comprise the first of six security zones ViaWest staff enforce.

At the reception desk, I was welcomed by Kayla Kirkeby, senior director of marketing, Cheryl Kopka, field marketing specialist, Peter Elton vice-president of sales engineering, and Dan Curry, my guide through the car trap.

After moving to a conference room overlooking the raised-floor area, we began talking about the facility. The data center is the former Entegris Inc. headquarters and includes 28 acres of rolling grassland and woods. ViaWest had the 158,000-square-foot building constructed in 1995 completely renovated (video of renovation). The white space incorporates 43,000 sq ft of raised-floor space (capacity for 9 MW of critical load) with 37,000 additional sq ft of space set aside for the next phase of expansion.

Next, Elton ran through the building and infrastructure specifications.

Compliance:

  • SSAE 16 and ISAE 3402 Service Organization Control (SOC) 1 Type II, SOC 2 Type II, and SOC 3 reports covering each of ViaWest's data centers to include operations, physical and environmental-security controls
  • PCI DSS and HIPAA Reports of Compliance for physical security, information-security policies, and managed-firewall services
  • ViaWest annually registers its adherence to the US-EU Safe Harbor Privacy framework

Fire detection and suppression:

  • Certified data-center smoke detection system
  • Certified VESDA incipient smoke detection
  • Dual-Interlock pre-action dry-pipe sprinkler system
  • Clean-agent fire extinguishers placed throughout the facility

Power:

  • A and B source power circuit delivery capabilities
  • Multiple medium voltage (13.8kV class) utility power feeds
  • 16 MW redundant, fault-tolerant diesel power-generation capacity
  • 9 MW redundant, fault-tolerant UPS capacity

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Image: ViaWest
HVAC and Environmental:

  • 3,000 tons redundant, fault-tolerant cooling capacity
  • High-density pods (700+ watts per square foot)
  • Hot-aisle/cold-aisle configuration

Network:

  • Redundant fiber-optic telecommunication networks delivered via Telcordia/Bellcore standards with diverse conduit and entrances
  • Telecommunication services available from T1 to multiple OC192
  • Ethernet services available from 5 Mbps to multiple 10 Gbps

The tour

The facility looked brand new, and not what I imagined. For example, cooling equipment and backup generators were not visible from the road. ViaWest added a large wall around the outdoor cooling units, and the backup generators were inside the building. Security at the facility was also more than I expected.

Security

Every access point was two-factor authentication — RFID key card and fingerprint scanners. In addition, gaining access to the raised-floor area required passing through dual-factor authentication mantraps that also had security cameras. Actually, there were security cameras everywhere.

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Image: ViaWest
Next, the six zones of security I mentioned earlier. Most facilities have security zones, but ViaWest places extra emphasis on delineating each security zone.

  • Zone 1: fenced in area around the facility and parking lot
  • Zone 2: secure vestibule with guard station
  • Zone 3: secure lobby
  • Zone 4: customer area (break room, workstations, and conference rooms)
  • Zone 5: raised-floor area
  • Zone 6: individual customer cages (can include camera, biometric scanner, audit logs, screwed down floor tiles, cage top)

The turnstile image to the right separates Zone 2 from Zone 3. The turnstile eliminates the possibility of tailgating — i.e., allowing more than one person through at a time. It also ensures security staff know who is in the elevated-security data-center area, as the turnstile will not work unless the RFID key card and fingerprint scan are registered, cross-checked, and entrance is approved.

The image to the right is of a cage door: Zone 6. The Suprema fingerprint scanner and key lock are two of the several security options given clients.

Lighting innovations

While we were in the conference room overlooking the raised-floor area, I noticed the lights were off, and when someone walked through the raised-floor area, the lights would switch on, and way too fast to be fluorescent fixtures. Kirkeby noticed my quizzical expression, mentioning, "The entire facility uses LED or low-power fluorescent lighting. The raised-floor area has high-bay LED fixtures from Cooper Lighting that use 90% less energy than other lighting options and reduces the raised-floor cooling load."

Kirkeby added that great pain is taken when adjusting the sensors and delay times to ensure proper visibility and yet keep the lights off whenever possible.

Cooling innovations

The ViaWest Minnesota facility employs a hybrid-cooling design based on air-side economization. The space under the raised floor is the cooling-air plenum. Hot air near the ceiling is returned to the Super-CRAC units (Patent US20140000847). Each Super CRAC units is capable of cooling 2 MW. Two units are currently in service.

ViaWest employs a unique way to ensure continuous cooling if a power loss occurs. Elton explains:

"If the facility loses power, the air handlers are on UPS and continue to provide cooling for the data center. Rather than put the mechanical A/C units on UPS, we have a pump on UPS that moves the already cold water (49 degrees) from a 1,650 gallon tank (1 per 200-ton unit) through the cooling coils. The generators start in about 15 seconds and the A/C units have about a 2-3 minute startup cycle. This design allows the raised-floor area to be cooled during the transition to generator power."

Surprises

Something did not seem right to me. The raised-floor area design includes hot and cold aisles, but the normal ducting used to further isolate the hot return air was missing. Elton explained why ducting was unnecessary:

"In traditional data centers, the ceilings are much lower. They will typically support 5,000 watts per cabinet. To get to higher density configurations, these traditional data center designs must incorporate either hot-air or cold-air containment of some kind. This adds to the cost and configuration of the data center.

"ViaWest solves this problem by using 24-foot high ceilings. This allows air to do what it does naturally when it gets hot — rise. With this natural flow of hot air toward the ceiling, we create a natural heat sink that allows the cold air to stay lower. We keep the air at 72 degrees 6 feet up in the cold aisle and can handle densities up to 18,000 Watts per cabinet. Higher densities can then be achieved through the use of containment. This design ultimately supports high densities with less energy needed to remove the heat from the room."

Another surprise, I asked to see the facility's tier-rating certifications. Kirkeby responded, "We do not currently hold any certifications for our Chaska, Minnesota facility, although we do plan to pursue them."

A welcome addition to the region

All the C-level executives I have talked to in the Twin Cities are happy to see ViaWest open a data center here. It seems, many are running the numbers, trying to figure out whether in-house, colocation, or managed services makes the most sense, and having more options is always a good thing.

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About Michael Kassner

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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