University of Delaware wants a 'traditional' datacenter

In an era of cutting-edge changes to data center technology, can a traditional facility make sense?
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

Despite the unanimous vote by the board of the University of Delaware to revoke the contract with The Data Centers, LLC to build a data center and co-generation plant on their STAR campus, UD is still actively interested in finding another datacenter tenant for the site. The trick, they say, is to find a traditional datacenter operator who just wants to connect to the public power grid.

UD had been fine with the original data center plans, until the scope of the power generation facility came to the attention of community and environmental groups, who raised such a stink about the plan that it even became an issue in the most recent mayoral race in Newark, DE.

As the complaints and protests reached a crest, UD caved to the public pressure and shut the project down, backpedaling with commentary as to how the project had grown too far beyond its original scope to be suitable for their brownfield recycled automotive assembly plant site.

But now the UD Director of Real Estate, Andy Lubin, has said that the University has been fielding inquiries from other datacenter operators interested in the site, though none have yet been publicly identified. The key to selecting a new data center operator, they intimated, would be the operator's willingness to build a traditional physical plant infrastructure that would draw power from the grid for day-to-day operations.

The catch here, of course, is that no data center operator can afford to be 100 percent dependent on the public power infrastructure. The diesel generators that would accompany a large datacenter built along traditional lines have drawn criticism in many communities over the last few years, with even the minimal regular testing done to insure effective continuity of services drawing attacks from local community organizations, primarily focusing on noise and smell.

Limiting the capacity of the backup generation capability of a facility effectively limits the capacity of the datacenter overall, so any operator interested in the location would need to have firmly drawn guidelines available prior to any commitment. But UD isn’t approaching the problem from that angle; rather, they are willing to give new proposals detailed consideration. This means that datacenter operators would be going in blind.

To effectively utilize the site for a datacenter, UD needs to establish guidelines that will allow potential operators to propose facilities that will best meet the needs of the operator and the university. Power generation technology is seeing a lot of changes in the data center marketplace; without guidelines, realistic proposals will be difficult to generate.

If UD decides to cap onsite power generation (the central focus of the previous hullabaloo), will they be doing so across technologies or just LNG power plants such as the one proposed? Will potential operators be permitted to build large solar fields, or install banks of fuel cells? Will free air cooling be permitted? Will they enact noise restrictions based on time of day? Will the new operator be required to run 100 percent off the public grid, except in emergencies? Will reuse of waste energy be permitted within the STAR campus?

These are just a few obvious questions out of the dozens, if not hundreds that any new data center proposal for the site will have to deal with. And even if the university does promulgate operational guidelines, one question remains unanswerable: Will they cave to community pressure at the first sign of disagreement?

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