How Compass Datacenters leveraged virtual tools to sign off facilities during Covid-19
Thu 30 Jul 2020 | James Orme
During Covid-19 Compass Datacenters took data centre commissioning virtual. Could its approach transform commissioning as we know it?
While the rest of society shifted to digital tools to navigate quarantine measures and stay-at-home restrictions, US-based data centre developer Compass Datacenters was figuring out how it could continue commissioning facilities during a period of unprecedented demand for digital infrastructure.
The company’s solution, virtual commissioning, is an innovative approach that could have far-reaching benefits for the data centre industry long after the pandemic subsides.
Commissioning is a key component of data centre delivery, comprising a five-stage process where individual components and systems are tested under load and failure situations — effectively the ‘quality control’ before end-user handover.
Like many other aspects of operations and delivery, the distanced world of Covid-19 presents a challenge to the personnel-intensive process of commissioning. Especially in the fifth and final phase, where facilities are pushed to maximum load and their metal tested in worst-case scenarios. Level 5 activities are typically performed on-site and require at least 20 participants.
“Based on the on-site manpower requirements to perform Level 5 testing, Covid-19 has had a major impact on the ability for developers to complete the full commissioning of their facilities,” explains CIO Nancy Novak, who is responsible for all facets of data centre construction and delivery at Compass.
It’s not just physical distancing that presented an obstacle, but staff availability. “One of our contractors’ employees tested positive and all of the people they had working on our project had to be quarantined.”
As soon as the virus hit US shores, Compass realised they had to forge a new process that could still guarantee the effective and accurate operation of facilities that power today’s mission-critical applications.
The company gathered all of the stakeholders involved in commissioning to explore possible alternatives. At the beginning everyone involved hoped these sessions were simply an exercise in planning for the worst, then the realities of Covid-19 hit home and they realised social distancing guidelines demanded a rethink.
“It became apparent that we would need to make alternative arrangements to perform commissioning if we were to deliver on schedule we took a deep look at every element of the process,” says Novak.
During discussions, Compass and its stakeholders evaluated how many people were essential to have on-site and how off-site personnel could leverage video and sensor feeds and management tools to perform necessary integrated system testing (IST) checks.
This structure was used to map out a hybrid process, which they call virtual commissioning. A skeleton on-site crew administer things like load banks and conduct tests, communicating at-distance via radio across the facility. Then the majority of personnel who are usually on-site use virtual tools to determine whether systems are operating in acceptable ranges, or as defined based on specific criteria. The remote team then communicates back to the skeleton crew to make any necessary modifications and sign off the test.
This process was successfully tested on the latest of a series of projects Compass has built for US regional provider TierPoint. Construction, but not commissioning, had been completed at this facility when Covid-19 struck. Novak said it was a gratifying moment for her and her team.
“At Compass we place great value on innovation and ingenuity and the fact that we were able to draw upon these attributes to overcome a major obstacle to enable us to deliver the facility on schedule was something that the team was particularly proud of.”
Novak says it “remains to be seen” whether virtual commissioning provides additional benefits than merely navigating current challenges, but the CIO reckons the virtualised approach could scale and enable Compass to use resources more efficiently across multiple projects simultaneously. One obvious benefit is verification: “All of the activities were recorded thereby providing an archival record of the process.”
“I think that what we’ll see over time is more companies adopting a hybrid approach that reduces the manpower required on-site for greater efficiency, while conversely increasing the number of remote participants available for monitoring, validation, training and related activities.”
“I think it’s reasonable to see this new methodology operating on a “sliding scale” with the degree of virtualisation used becoming a function of the amount and availability of personnel required during times when multiple projects are taking place simultaneously.”
Written by James Orme Thu 30 Jul 2020