It’s challenging enough to maintain an existing server room. Designing and building one from scratch can be an even more daunting project—especially for the intrepid first-timer. Recently, TechRepublic member kevandwrote in asking for advice on undertaking the design and implementation of a server room housing six servers and the accompanying equipment. This article highlights some advice and variables to consider from experienced TechRepublic members who have tackled these projects or learned from others’ past mistakes.

Space considerations
Before even considering the layout of the room’s contents, the location of the room within the building is a vital consideration. Most members agree that the room should not be built where one of its walls is an exterior wall of the building. TechRepublic member craig mentioned that exterior walls are often quite damp and can contain water pipes that could burst and drench the equipment.

Because exterior windows are susceptible to being blown in or out by storm winds, TheViper also argued against using exterior walls and offered a reminder that basements often flood and roofs often leak or collapse.

“Pick an interior area, neither on the bottom or the top floor, and make sure your wiring chases can drain somewhere that’s not on or under your equipment,” he said.

If space is limited in a multifloor building, an interior, centralized site may not be possible. Sam Hodo works in a multifloor building and uses server closets on each floor as opposed to a centralized site. The phones and data are housed in the closets and “each closet is stacked above each other on the floor that they service.”

In addition to the hazards of exterior walls, craig recommends evaluating any potential sources of interference in close proximity to the room.

“Is the room next to any radio transmitter? What about electrical noise from power plants, lift rooms, etc.?”

Size does matter
It’s much easier to plan for the organization’s current needs than to consider any growth projections. However, if room for expansion isn’t factored into the initial design, there’s going to be problems down the road. For example, in one year, dja_mcse’s office grew from a 10-machine peer-to-peer network of five employees to an ASP with multiple servers and 65 employees. The office moved to a larger location, and dja_mcse planned for even more growth in the new room design.

While projecting growth is often largely speculative, enterprise architect Jim Huggy recommended planning five years out with a growth rate of 20 percent per year.

Room for expansion isn’t the only space consideration. Many members noted that their server rooms lack space both in front of and behind racks for maintenance access. And jakjt mentioned that service access should be comfortable for everyone.

“Make sure even your most portly IT employees can get behind the counters and racks for maintenance.”

Without good management of the existing space with adequate room built in for work, jakjt believes that the server room becomes too much like the “junk drawer at home.”

“It starts out nice and neat, but before long, you have a hard time getting it closed. ‘Could you step outside? I need some room to open the CD caddy.’”

An exit strategy
If you think that you’re never going to need to remove and replace some of the equipment you’ve installed in the strategically positioned racks, think again. Installing a regular-size door can make maintenance a nightmare. According to member USMC–ORA DBA, “You need to make sure the doorway will allow equipment and LAN cabinets to enter without having to remove the door or frames. A 42-inch-wide by 84-inch-tall door should handle most items.”

If the server room has a raised floor that’s higher than the outside area, a ramp will also facilitate moving equipment in and out of the room. Steve Gibson recommends building the ramp outside of the room so it doesn’t consume floor space inside. As far as specs, Gibson said that most ramps are built with a 1-inch-per-foot gradient.

Another step that will make future maintenance or replacement go more smoothly is proper organization of the cables. Sam Hodo tie-wraps all materials and color codes the cables. Member anthonywardluke recommended building in an extra two meters in all routed cables to accommodate any “plugging or modification work.”

Keeping cool
No matter how well you’ve planned and utilized your space, your efforts are all in vain if your air conditioning is sub par. A primary concern, according to John Tweedle, is making sure that the server room’s power supply and climate controls remain separate from the rest of the office space.

“It looks real bad on you when the night cleaners turn off the A/C in the building for the long weekend, and the servers/equipment are toast from the heat.”

When bobf’’s boss refused to let him have a backup A/C unit, they ended up with a fried server. But cooling woes don’t stop there. Another member said that his sole A/C unit was located overhead, and when its drain clogged, the condensation flowed down to the floor.

“If you have overhead A/C, make sure you don’t have equipment under it. This has to be taken into account in the space planning and layout phase.”

Plan for disaster
While it’s likely that the building surrounding the server room is equipped with a fire detection and sprinkler system, the server room needs to have its own protection in place that utilizes an alternative to sprinklers. Consultant Rob Gilsdorf suggested a gas system complete with abort buttons in case the system goes off in error.

Member jalmodavar recommended using the gas FM-200 but cautioned, “The room also needs to be pressure-tested so that in the event the gas is used, it doesn’t escape.”
What pitfalls should be avoided in designing a server room? Do you have any tips or best practices for server room design that you’d like to pass along? Join the discussion and share your thoughts.