Special Coverage Series

Network Computing

Special Coverage Series

Commentary

Ken Miller

Schneider Electric Targets Data Center Lifecycle

Schneider Electric has launched a new business unit and consulting business that aims to improve data center energy efficiency by better integrating design, construction and operations.

Unexpected data center costs, driven by disconnected lifecycle phases (such as design, construction, engineering, and operations), are driving the market toward integrated offerings that can address the data center lifecycle as a whole to deliver consistent and strategic cost reductions.

To that end, Schneider Electric has announced a new division, Mission Critical Services and Software, to target energy management throughout the lifecycle of the data center. The company also launched a Data Center Service Provider team that will provide consulting services for large data center operators, including cloud and colocation providers.

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These announcements come on the heels of the launch of a new data center business unit at GE.

Schneider targets the gap between data center designers and product manufacturers. The architects and engineers designing data centers typically don't get into "integration" or lifecycle discussions with their clients. Meanwhile, product manufacturers are typically brought into the process after the design is complete. Neither of them focus much on ongoing operating performance of the facilities; once they've been paid, they move on to the next customer. Data center operators are often left with a patchwork of products that aren't integrated, and operators are left to develop ongoing maintenance and operating plans on their own.

The largest portion of data center capital investment for construction is driven by the electrical infrastructure. Once the data center is built, the largest operating expense (outside of IT energy costs) is energy costs for operating the mechanical cooling systems. To counter those costs, data center operators often invest in high-efficiency products.

However, poor data center design and a lack of coordination between data center designers and data center equipment vendors means that some data centers can't take full advantage of high-efficiency features. For example, a UPS with an economization mode feature may not be able to operate in that mode due to upstream transformers or lack of power quality. Without careful planning, integration of control information, and a lifecycle plan, the value of high-efficiency products can be lost.

Schneider has been working toward a lifecycle approach for the past couple of years. For instance, recent acquisitions have focused on the software, controls, communications, and management systems embedded into the electrical and mechanical infrastructure of data centers. The acquisition of Lee Technologies in 2011 brought the full lifecycle methodology into the mix.

Schneider is not the first company to move into "end-to-end" data center consulting. A few others that come to mind include HP (via its acquisition of EYP Mission Critical Facilities) and IBM Data Center Services. Architecture, engineering, and construction firms such as CCG, Bruns-Pak, RTKL, and many other also consult in this area.

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What's unique about Schneider's entry into consulting is its role as a major product manufacturer. The question is whether Schneider can be both a product provider and a consultant. Many companies have attempted this combination, but it can be hard for the consulting wing of an equipment provider to recommend competing products, even when those products are in the client's best interest.

The question for Schneider Electric is whether its services unit can be truly independent or just another channel for its own products. In addition, will its software and control systems fully support competitors' products?

I spoke with Mike Hagan, vice president of the new Data Center Service Provider division, to get the answer to these questions. It's clear the company understands the potential for conflict of interest, but it also recognizes that clients have reference designs, existing product relationship, and-occasionally-good reasons why a competitor's product is a better fit. Hagan says Schneider is committed to delivering the best solution independent of product manufacturer.

On the software side, he points out that the company has committed to open protocols for electrical systems and mechanical systems, and is positioning its software to be the integration point for multi-vendor solutions.

I look forward to see whether Schneider can deliver on these new offerings in a truly consultative role, but I am most interested on how its focus on lifecycle methodology, software, and controls can influence product development and operational efficiency. The gaps between product design, data center design, and data center operation are enormous. It's worth keeping an eye on Schneider's activities because operators could enjoy significant efficiency gains if those gaps are closed by improvements in product design.



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