Case Study: How virtual commissioning makes our project delivery faster, easier and safer

Nov. 5, 2021
It’s a pandemic innovation for faster delivery that’s here to stay.

By Nancy Novak, chief innovation officer with Compass Datacenters

Data-center commissioning is a meticulous process and is essential to ensuring the quality and reliability of a complex, industrial-scale facility that can require as much energy as a small town. With so much critical enterprise data stored and moved through data centers, downtime is unacceptable, making commissioning that much more crucial. The commissioning process can be iterative and lengthy, sometimes starting months before completion and taking into consideration:

  • Power systems—The fault tolerance and resiliency required to maintain uninterrupted power is crucial in a data center.
  • Cooling—The computing power within a data hall generates a lot of heat; ensuring adequate cooling under a variety of conditions takes a lot of testing.
  • Control systems—Automation and control systems bring the equipment together, operating in unison. The ability of control systems to respond to a variety of events between equipment and systems, in varying environmental conditions, has to be coordinated and tested. 
  • Physical security—Access controls are a growing area of concern as data centers become a more “known commodity,” valuable to business continuity and success.

Naturally, when COVID hit and our company had to pivot to virtual commissioning, it was an intimidating prospect. Historically, every operator, vendor and “owner” of a particular piece of technology would come to the site to test each part independently and in relation to the whole. Teams of 20 to 25 people would crowd into close quarters to monitor equipment and sensors…a practice that does not work well in a time of social distancing.  

It was clear that the traditional approach to completing all of the associated commissioning activities wasn’t possible in light of COVID protocols. So, for the first time (possibly in data-center commissioning history but certainly for Compass), commissioning was carried out virtually using a skeleton crew on-site, a lot of video, radios and sensors with a larger group working remotely, behind the scenes, to ensure every piece of equipment performed perfectly in a variety of scenarios. 

An outside commissioning firm was brought in to write the scripts, designate roles and responsibilities, and coordinate the overall effort. The package that they ultimately developed exemplified the benefits gained by applying advanced technology to solve specific problems. With all relevant parties equipped to view performance results in real time from remote locations, verifications and modifications could be made immediately, either by the remote personnel or, in a limited number of instances with a skeleton crew on-site.

Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from this exercise was being reminded of how important it is to continuously re-evaluate processes and procedures to ensure we’re working smarter, not harder. In any process-oriented endeavor, it’s easy for a collective mentality to develop. We fall back on “the way we’ve always done it” and don’t challenge the assumption that how we’re doing it is the most efficient and effective manner possible. As an organization dedicated to a philosophy of continuous improvement, our exercise of performing this virtual commissioning reinforced the point that without challenging ourselves, complacency reigns.

The virtual commissioning model required Compass, the facility’s would-be owner, commissioning consultants, and the electrical and mechanical contractors to place a very small group of people on-site and relay information to off-site personnel via video feeds, sensor readings, cell-phone updates, texts, walkie talkies and more. Integrated systems tests of data centers have a lot of moving parts.

Having to so carefully plan, script and stage the testing enabled us to troubleshoot before the testing even began. As a result, the team successfully completed testing in one day, with uptime-redundancy testing completed the following day.

A year later, despite vaccines and fewer capacity restrictions, Compass is continuing to leverage the virtual model for commissioning as it builds more data centers throughout the globe. Virtual commissioning resulted in more data than traditional commissioning provided. Those data and video recordings have paid dividends. Operators use them for documentation, training and development. 

Our experience with virtual commissioning has also aided our ability to further compress our delivery schedules through a process not unlike a football team “reviewing the tape” to identify what went well and what bombed. 

All of these elements are important when you consider the continuing demand-driven pressure to deliver data-center capacity faster than ever before. The lessons learned from the project have also enhanced our ability to quickly adapt our schedules and personnel deployment to overcome unforeseen events (like last-minute design changes) without limiting our ability to deliver the facility to our customer on the prescribed date.

Now that it’s proven completely effective, virtual commissioning will be integrated into the facility handoff process as a convenience option to Compass customers going forward.