Upgrading the Edge

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The Edge is supposed to be a new concept. How does it come to be modernizing already?

Dartpoints was one of the first companies to realize the potential at the Edge, launching back in 2012. That means that in 2020, while other arrivals are debating what an Edge facility is, Dartpoints is having to refresh its first locally-focused data centers.

“Our first data center is turning eight years old this year,” Hugh Carspecken, co-founder and CTO of the company told DCD. “Some of the smaller and younger facilities are brand new – but we have had to expand and upgrade that one.”

When Carspecken talks about Edge, he’s not referring to waterproof boxes hanging off lamp-posts and cell towers. In 2012, the company spotted an opportunity to take data center services to smaller cities, or parts of town which had no nearby large colocation facility.

The idea is to offer data center services as good as a larger facility, but with the rapid response (low latency) that comes with being in the same town as the customer – and linked with a proprietary service operation platform.

“We don’t have a standard product, and we’re not a modular data center company. Our general design practices are standardized, but the product is not,” Carspecken told us. “We locate either inside commercial real estate or outside.” Space is available in chunks from 100kW or 200kW, and customers are typically local enterprises, who don’t want to run their own data center, but don’t want to ship their IT far away.

“At the time, the market was saying ‘Don’t have a data center onsite.’ We felt that was a false narrative. The people who were giving that narrative had a very acute agenda,” he explained.

Some of Dartpoints’ facilities are in car parks, but it opened its first one in its home town, Dallas, in March 2013. It’s a modular build, inside a larger building, and it was built “as a test to prove a theory,” Carspecken admits. “We started within commercial properties, because that’s where customers are.”

Subsequently, Dartpoints has built in all forms of commercial real estate, on brand new land, outdoors, or inside commercial high rise buildings or warehouses. “Sometimes we are a third party with the landlord, we own some. We are a mix between development and building to an existing real estate.”

In Dallas, the company took a whole floor (“the 13th floor, but I’m not superstitious”) in a multi-tenant building totalling around a million sq ft. “Building in those types of buildings is a challenge,” said Carspecken. Dartpoints found a local customer, a large building supplies company that wanted to keep its data local. Over the last eight years, that company has stayed, and Dartpoints has expanded to handle more capacity: “We handle the majority of their data.” During the last eight years, Dartpoints has added new racks, and new power and cooling capacity – but it didn’t have to change the specifications much from its initial designs. “That design has held up very well,” said Carspecken. “We were a little bit lucky, as equipment vendors were making strides into this space. We bought the latest features, and they have held up well over the last eight years.” Only now is the company having to add tweaks and tuning to the cooling systems.

The first site was built with enough electrical power and cooling to fill 80 percent of its 100kW capacity. “We can drop in additional racks, we don’t need to create a separate hall,” he explained. “If the customer requires a separate space, then we create a private wall for them.”

The relationship with hardware vendors has been crucial, he says – and Dartpoints has established ways to drive their equipment to higher reliability.

“We don’t buy 1.2MW generators. Ours are 250kw or 275kW. That’s typically enterprise equipment, and we are deploying it in a carrier-class environment.”

Equipment designed for large data centers is built to last 20 years, but smaller enterprise kit is designed for lighter duty and a shorter lifecycle. But used intelligently, that equipment can deliver reliability every bit as good as its larger brothers and sisters. “We work very closely with the Schneiders and Vertivs of this world,” said Carspecken. “We do monthly and quarterly testing, and a lot of diagnostics. We replace things before they fail.”

That level of preventive maintenance is more demanding than would be typical for this kit. “We put hours on our generators. We give them a low load run every week – we learned the hard way that if you do not test your equipment on a regular basis, this type of equipment that has not graduated to carrier class, will fail and fail in odd ways.“

One generator, designed for light enterprise backup, had a starter – a part costing only 78 cents – which would fail after a certain number of hours. It wasn’t an inferior product, said Carspecken: “They weren’t trying to hide this. These generators are fantastic products, they do exactly what they are meant to do. They are fine to back up a Walmart store, but for a carrier class data center like ours they are not quite there.”

Even with the best maintenance, equipment in the Dallas site eventually has had to be physically upgraded at the end of its life. In a smaller N+1 data center, with customers in place, that’s a challenge

“A large data center can be segmented and separated, but a smaller one can’t,” he said. All Dartpoints’ sites are to some extent concurrently maintainable, with a design roughly matching the Uptime Institute’s Tier II or III specifications.

Some sites have redundant power sources, and the data center can be switched to a different feed during electrical work, he told us: “On HVAC it’s a little trickier.” Dartpoints uses in-row chillers, which provide cooling at specific racks: “You have to be able to repair these or replace them in a way that doesn’t affect the surrounding racks.”

With densities reaching up to 5kW or 8kW per rack, this maneuver will get more tricky. Again, the best thing is to avoid the problem, by using diagnostics to fix small problems before they escalate: “So far we haven’t had to replace an in-row chiller, but we have done a hot-swappable fan,” he said.

In Dallas, Dartpints expanded from its initial 100kW facility to 200kW, said Carspecken. The growth is mainly to accommodate the anchor tenant, which is consolidating more of its IT into the space. “That’s a lesson we are learning with regards to larger customers: once they like the product they consume more and more.”

Dartpoints had first refusal to take adjacent space in the building, and Carspecken says the initial build had this expansion in mind.

“Our first build was expensive, but it was designed to handle 200kW. When we added additional power it was part of that design.”

The first space was built in 63 days, which was good going. Doubling the capacity took just two weeks: “We’d prepared the site in such a way that we can drop in a module.”

Overall, as upgrades get rolled out to other Dartpoints locations, Carspecken can see a situation where the company is managing “light touch” upgrades in multiple locations.

At that point, the company could look a bit more like a logistics company, with a service element, Carspecken suggests: “We won’t have our customers ship their devices to an address and have it sit outside the address.”

Meanwhile, in Dallas, the demand is there to double the facility again in the next 18 months, but that would make it more like a conventional data center than the Edge facility it started as: “We never planned on putting half a MW into this site. We won’t turn it down, but at a certain point, there are diminishing returns.” If future demands look like going towards 1MW or more, it’s possible that Dartpoints will end up teaming up with a partner in a Tier 2 city.

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