What Does It Mean to Commission a Data Center?

Img blog commissioning levels

Data center commissioning is a meticulous process that is crucial to ensuring the quality and reliability of a new data center. Because commissioning is often announced just before a new data center opens, some may think it is quick and only done once construction has finished. While the final stage of commissioning is conducted after the completion of construction, the reality is the commissioning process can be iterative and starts months before completion.

So, what exactly is commissioning? According to the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), commissioning is the “quality-oriented process for achieving, evaluating and documenting that the performance of buildings, systems and assemblies meets defined objectives and criteria.” Basically, commissioning leads to greater availability, safety, and efficiency while reducing project and operating costs throughout the life cycle of the data center.

“Done properly, commissioning improves system performance throughout the life cycle of a data center. Better system performance not only optimizes data center performance, it also decreases operation and maintenance costs and cuts down on energy consumption for smaller utility bills.”
-Michael Donato, Data Center Knowledge

Before commissioning can begin, the data center owner’s project team must outline the owner/operator’s requirements in a document referred to as the Owner’s Project Requirements or OPR. The standards set by this document will guide the entire commissioning process. Once the OPR is approved, the commissioning plan can be developed to ensure the standards outlined in the OPR are met by all parties involved in the project.

Here are the five levels of data center commissioning that Data Foundry follows when building a new data center:

Level 1 – Factory Witness Testing

The first level of equipment testing takes place in the factory. When purchasing mission critical equipment from a supplier, the data center owner/operator should outline the testing protocol in their purchase specifications. This way the manufacturer knows the expectations in advance and performs tests according to the owner/operator’s standards before the equipment is approved and shipped to the site.

Level 2 – Site Acceptance Inspection

Once the equipment arrives to the construction site, it must be inspected before it is accepted. In most cases, the equipment does not match the owner/operator’s specifications when it arrives, even after level one testing is performed.

Level 3 — Pre-Functional Testing (PFT)

Pre-functional testing involves the inspection of the installation of all equipment. Both the contractors and commissioning agent will verify that all equipment is installed properly, and that installation meets compliance requirements and owner/operator standards. Equipment is also started for the first time to check functionality. During these start-up tests, commissioning agents ensure ducts are airtight, they check for leaks, and they check pressure gauges, valves, fans and various other components. Of course, if errors in installation are found, they must be addressed and fixed to meet standards, and PFT must be performed all over again for that piece of equipment.

Level 4 – Functional Performance Testing

Although all the equipment has already been started and reviewed, functional performance testing is necessary to put every piece of equipment through a full cycle to test performance in all settings. According to an article in the ASHRAE Journal, “Each control loop of every system is checked to make sure its control sequence actually does what it is supposed to do.” It is during this phase that setpoint adjustments are made as necessary and equipment is properly tuned. Systems are tested and adjusted to run according to owner/operator standards.

Level 5 – Integrated Systems Testing (IST)

Level five commissioning, also known as IST, is the moment of truth. It is the final reliability test before opening a data center. This is what we refer to as “pulling the plug”. Basically, the electrical power is suddenly disconnected while all systems are running, just as if an outage had occurred. The data center’s backup power systems (UPS and generators) should kick in, and there should be a seamless transition to backup power with no interruptions to cooling. Once a data center passes this test, it is ready to serve customers with mission critical needs.

Creating Documentation

Physically testing equipment and systems is not the only goal of commissioning. Throughout the commissioning process, systems operations and maintenance manuals are developed to help the data center operations team run the facility. Developing these processes to be as comprehensive and thorough as possible and training staff to implement them is just as important, if not more, to a data center’s overall reliability. These operations manuals provide valuable training for the facilities team and prepare them for efficiently troubleshooting and resolving incidents, should they occur, once the data center is operational.

Data Foundry’s Texas 2 data center in Austin is currently undergoing the final stages of commissioning. Go to our Texas 2 page to learn more.