BIM (Building Information Modelling) improves design of utility systems for data centres

Margarita Puydak
project information modeling officer
Andrey Kolyasnikov
head of design of infrastructure systems

STEP LOGIC's Department of Engineering Systems

employs a team of highly skilled professionals with over 10 years of experience in implementing utility infrastructure projects for data centres. Experts with this kind of experience know that there is no such thing as a typical data centre, instead what they have to deal with is constant technical problems and design challenges and, naturally, they would like to be able to automate these tasks making use of modern intelligent information systems.

The utility infrastructure of data centres and server clusters is a set of interrelated systems with a high concentration of large-scale equipment, pipelines and cable networks that are often placed in confined spaces on premises with a very high cost of square footage.

STEP LOGIC has vast experience in designing customized utility infrastructure for data centres: every new project that we work on brings us face to face with a whole host of technical problems that demand innovative solutions.

The Building Information Modelling approach that STEP LOGIC adopted in 2016, whereby a single 3D model of the building is created and then used throughout the lifecycle of the building, offers the best possible fit for the modern vision of what an ideal design process should look like, both in terms of the automated functions it offers and in terms of the added benefits derived from designing new properties in this manner.

So how exactly does BIM help with designing data centres? We will discuss it with STEP LOGIC's Project Information Modelling Manager Margarita Puidak and the Head of the Utility Systems Design Unit Andrey Kolyasnikov.

Andrey Kolyasnikov:
Let's first look at the siting of the main utility systems equipment on the premises, the most important task when it comes to designing data centres (we're talking 19'' cabinets, uninterrupted power supply units, air conditioning units, gas fire extinguishers). The typical problems our engineers run into at this stage are as follows: First, they need to check whether the equipment will fit where we want to place it; then, they have to make sure that there is enough room left for maintenance as well as for carrying the equipment and for meeting the emergency evacuation requirements. Margarita, can you tell us about how BIM helps you tackle these tasks?

Margarita Puidak:
The BIM process always starts with creating a 3D model of the property, which is essentially visualising the plan for placing equipment on the premises. While with 2D modelling you can only work with the length and width of your equipment, BIM allows us to work with 3D models of any piece of equipment, thus taking into account its width, length and height, as well as any protrusions it might have. Once the 3D model is ready, we can easy see how the equipment can be carried to its assigned spots, which passages, lifts and staircases need to be used. We can model all of that with the help of BIM.

The BIM solution that STEP LOGIC uses is based on the Revit software package. An important feature that it offers is the collaborative work option. This means that the designers of all the systems can access the same 3D model online and put their equipment where they want it, and everyone can see in real time whether the spot they want is vacant or occupied. Revit offers a number of ways to assess the situation, ranging from simply looking at the 3D models to generating a huge amount of floor plans (2D elevations of the 3D models to the required scale with all the required markings and references) and automated algorithms that check for possible overlaps. These cross-sections and elevations are used by Revit to create GOST-compliant drawings.

An important aspect is how realistic the 3D model of the property looks. And it does look far more realistic than the traditional 2D plans, which allows the designer to figure out what is going on even in the most complex sections of the design. Architectural solutions utilizing multiple levels, ceilings and floors become much easier to process for the human brain, allowing people to more easily assess the location of vertical risers, the heights of utility instillations, the specific features of the geometry of load bearing metal beams and other elements that can often be hard to picture when presented on 2D models.

A realistic 3D presentation is a huge bonus not just for the designer but for the customer as well. Even while the designers are working on the first 3D sketch model with all the main equipment in place (UPS, cabinets, air conditioning units), they can already choose from a variety of options to demonstrate the result to the customer: they can create video footage or photographs of the 3D model as well as use virtual reality tools.

Andrey Kolyasnikov:
One of the longest stages in the design of the utility infrastructure of data centres is the development and production of detailed drawings for all the mechanical and cable communication systems, such as freon and chiller water pipelines, the sewage removal system, the fire extinguishing system, the ducts, trays and corrugated pipes for the cables. All these networks have very high density, both in the main rooms of the data centre that house the 19'' cabinets and all the IT equipment, as well as in other specially allocated rooms housing uninterrupted power supply systems, chillers and pumping stations. The designers must meet a huge number of requirements when designing utility systems: there are the electromagnetic compatibility requirements, fire safety requirements, heat and hydraulic parameters, ease of access and maintenance requirements. The result is that utility systems invariably have very complex designs that few government inspectors or customer specialists can properly assess using standard 2D drawings, either as a whole or with regards to specific subsystems. Margarita, what options does BIM offer for untangling the knots often found in consolidated utility infrastructure plans?

Margarita Puidak:
The BIM process we use in the Revit system is organized in such a way that at any stage, whether it is the siting of the equipment or the laying of pipes and cables, the designer can use automated algorithms that check the model and carry out specialized engineering calculations:

  1.  The collision verification function shows the designer all the elements in the final model that crisscross each other: cable ducts crossing other ducts or pipes, equipment elements infringing on building elements or other pieces of equipment. The collision search can be fine-tuned to run a variety of very specific queries on the system. The mains can also be checked for the so-called clearance requirements, i.e. how far they should be laid from other utility lines.
  2.  The system automatically models the various accessories needed for pipes and ducts, such as corner pieces, turns and other fittings. This means that the system with databases of different types of accessories will make sure the right type of fitting is used where a pipe or duct turns or descends and the right type of valve is used for a specific type of pipe.
  3.  In the collaboration mode, the system also gives each designer exhaustive information about the elements of the systems that other designers are working on. All the properties for all the adjacent utility systems are displayed: which of your colleagues has laid it, which system it belongs to, where it starts and where it ends, what it is connected to, and lots of other information. This function allows the designers to make correct decisions for where to put a duct or a pipe, taking into account the location of adjacent systems as well as ensuring that there is enough clearance as per the applicable requirements; and all these decisions can be made at the modelling stage.

Using all these functions drastically reduces the time required for the design of utility systems while allowing the designers to quickly "untangle" complex situations where several system mains criss-cross each other.
And the final realistic 3D model showing all the details of the utility mains receives a warm welcome and praise even from the most technically savvy customers.

Andrey Kolyasnikov:
Margarita, this is all inside the model, meaning it is all inside the building. But a lot of the main equipment of a data centre is located outside the building itself. What happens to all that outdoor equipment when you design a data centre in Revit?

Margarita Puidak:
With BIM, the same method is used for equipment placed outdoors and in areas adjacent to the data centre building. Revit allows us to model the ground under and around the properties we are designing. There is also a special program for designing infrastructure facilities called Civil 3D, which we use when we need to design additional structures or do some virtual landscaping. So if we need to lay some underground mains through some manifolds or in special canals, or design underground floors for the property, put some equipment on the roof, or on metal frames, or on concrete foundations outside the building, we always model the territory and all the architectural elements and structures that will need to be built to house the additional equipment.

Andrey Kolyasnikov:
So, when all the equipment has been sited, all the mains laid and hooked up, how does BIM help you when it comes to the engineering of specific sections and systems?

Margarita Puidak:
All the elements in a BIM model (families of elements) have the property of being part of specific systems: architecture, power supply, climate control, mechanical systems, security, automation and control. All the climate control and wire communication systems have the so called Logical System function where you can hook up various peripherals to the main units in the model. For example, if you have a chiller, you can hook up pumps and cooling fan coils to it; if you have a power supply board, you can connect sockets and lamps to it; if you have an alarm system, you can connect sensors to it. At any time, the designer has access to information about equipment that has been left unconnected (that you forgot or missed in the process). For climate control systems (ventilation, refrigeration), the program has special modules that allow you to check cross-sections of air ducts, the pressure and head of liquids.

An important result of the BIM design process is the automatic generation of specifications for equipment and materials. All the specifications are always 100% accurate: the exact equipment that has been designed and modelled will end up in the list of equipment and materials. Specifications can be generated based on a broad range of criteria: you can generate specifications for specific systems, specifications for specific types of equipment and materials, specifications for specific rooms and, naturally, full specifications for procurement.

Andrey Kolyasnikov:
Designing the utility infrastructure for a data centre involves the use of specialized air conditioning, uninterrupted power supply equipment, raised floors and 19'' cabinets.

What functions of the BIM approach help solve specialized problems that have to be dealt with when designing data centres?

Margarita Puidak:
Once completed, the 3D model can be used in other software products. For example, you can use Autodesk CFD to model the whole range of climate control processes on the property, including ventilation, air conditioning, heating, as well as the external temperature and wind factors. The program helps solve the hydrodynamic and thermodynamic problems to calculate the parameters of the ceilings and the heat transfer values. The modelled process is visualized using the capability of the program with the resulting images including cross-sections while the adjustable parameters allow you to display iso-surfaces and graphs. Thus, the combination of Revit and CFD makes it possible to model, calculate and visualize the results for the most complex process that happens in a data centre, the transfer of heat away from the IT equipment: the heat flows travelling between the 19'' server cabinets and the air conditioning units, the feeding of cold air under the raised floor to the perforated tiles and the servers, as well as the movement of the heat transfer medium in the refrigeration system. Naturally, this tool helps us not only to design and check the effectiveness of the cooling systems in new data centres that we design, but also analyse the situation in existing data centres that need modernization.

3D models of data centres can be used in the same way to analyse the load carrying capacity of the floors and ceilings, raised floors and pillars, because most of the utility equipment installed in data centres is comprised of heavy uninterrupted power supply units, batteries, chillers, cabinets, and panels.

BIM is an actively developing technology that does not end with design, but rather continues to be used during the construction and operation of properties.

An important use of 3D models of data centres is when they are used in Navisworks, which makes it possible not only to easily view, check, and inspect a design, but also to develop a 5D construction schedule tied to the budget and timeframes and taking into account the order in which all the different elements have to be installed. A data centre construction schedule animated in Navisworks can visually show the project managers and the customer alike the correct order, in which each piece of equipment and construction element must be delivered and installed, and notify them in the event the construction process falls behind schedule or when some job gets completed ahead of schedule.

A 5D schedule for the construction of a data centre and installation of utility systems components from Navisworks

Once a data centre has been built and commissioned, its 3D model continues to be used by the company that runs it in their SCADA control system, in their inventory systems, in the equipment planning and monitoring systems that make use of expected wear and tear timelines and maintenance schedules.

Andrey Kolyasnikov:
Engineers always need exhaustive catalogues and technical data for available equipment to develop quality designs. What is the reaction to BIM from the manufacturers of utility infrastructure equipment for data centres? Where do you get data on various pieces of equipment for 3D modelling?

Margarita Puidak:
As far as equipment and materials manufacturers are concerned, the main suppliers of data centre solutions (such as Schneider Electric, Panduit) have already created databases for all of their main equipment that can be used in Revit directly. And these models not only offer precise dimensions for 3D modelling, they also come packed with all the relevant information parameters such as: materials, part numbers, dimensions, which utility systems they belong to, connection points, links to relevant websites. Vendors understand quite well that if designers can incorporate models of their equipment and materials in their designs, then in all probability it is their equipment and materials that will end up being used when the actual construction work on the property begins.

It should be noted that as BIM is gaining wider acceptance, it is not just manufacturers that are beginning to take an interest. For instance, system integrators, that is, companies directly involved in the implementation of information technology and data centre projects who know full well the value of innovative tools and technologies, are putting more and more emphasis on BIM. By adopting the BIM methodology for modelling the utility infrastructure of data centres in 2016, STEP LOGIC managed to catch the new wave of innovation in the construction industry, thereby improving the quality of its projects and enabling its design solutions to be used throughout the entire life cycle of the properties, from construction through operation to decommissioning.

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