Since its beginnings in the life science sector in 1996, Commissioning Agents Inc. (CAI) has expanded beyond being a commissioning agent, gaining a worldwide reputation for expertise in end-to-end project management, offering rigorous compliance testing based on specific industry standards and regulatory requirements.

In late 2022, it launched a dedicated data center division. DataCenter Dynamics spoke to Josh Hoops – global VP, Data Centers, Kirk Calhoun – director of operations, Americas, and Trent Vaden – client engagement director, Americas, to learn how expertise in tightly-regulated sectors enhances the quality and reliability of data center projects.

Calhoun begins by explaining how it achieves results by baking in quality from the outset of projects. “Our model is quality-based and focused on operational excellence. We own issues and close them out. As you get toward the end of the project, the construction team is anxious to hand over to the operational group, but we like to hand over a functioning, polished, finished building. Our secret is to work as partners from the outset, meaning all that quality should be met in earlier phases, so everything is already resolved, meaning we can close on time, if not earlier.”

It seems almost too good to be true, that focusing on quality throughout can speed up completion, but it also makes perfect sense.

“By engaging with the owner and the general contractors (GC) as early as possible, preferably at the design review and tender stage, we can compress the schedule because we identify issues and mitigate risks earlier. We also encourage end users to onboard staff and start training earlier, so they’re more proficient on day one.”

Vaden adds: “It’s important that we prove to our clients that their success is our success.” We ask the team whether they ever come up against resistance to employing a third-party commissioning agent. Is there ever pushback from companies who believe they can do it all themselves? Hoops explains:

“It has become the norm in the US and Europe to have a third-party commissioning agent. Leaving it to the GC means there is no external element to hold accountability as a representative of the owner. It’s a necessary element of making sure a facility is designed, built, and operating in accordance with the criteria.”

Not to mention, it prevents operators from marking their own homework.

“CAI came about to reduce conflicts of interest. Back in the day, it used to be that everyone made sure that the things they built worked, but of course, they’re going to verify they work – they built it – they want to build and go to the next project. A third party like us gives one sole, focused player, and project team dedicated to making sure that the end user gets a functioning building.”

Calhoun emphasizes that to achieve that aim, it’s important to bring a commissioning agent on board as early as possible in the process.

“The importance of a proper kick-off is full alignment giving confidence that we understand the code, and specifications to the fullest extent and that may mean challenging aspects they may have overlooked, which is appreciated, though not always comfortable to do. But kick-off at inception shows that we’re all on the same page.”

Vaden points to the importance of building trust to enable delivery: “Our team is built to deliver results, and developing relationships hinges on that ability to deliver.”

Indeed, there are myriad dangers in bringing in a commissioning agent too late which can raise costs and delay the launch. Hoops warns of the dangers of making quality an afterthought.

“If we’re brought in late, delays from the GC side compress our schedule. We’re expected to do the same amount of work in a shorter time frame, which either requires more resources or some very creative thinking. By working with us from the beginning, we prevent that before it happens.”

This commitment to detail comes from the company’s origins in an industry where the slightest mistake can cost lives. Hoops tells us more.

“CAI began in the pharmaceutical industry so we’ve applied those same principles – highly regulated and very strict – to data centers. That comes down to our resources, our people, and their skill sets and technical understanding to enable the same quality delivery with a data center mindset.”

Calhoun points to another advantage that a background in the pharmaceutical industry brings.

“One of the biggest benefits that we bring from life sciences is our understanding of change management. It’s about testing and tracking changes early and often. There’s nothing worse than going into level five testing, and tests are invalidated because scripts didn’t get modified to reflect changes.”

From its beginnings in Indiana, CAI has grown to have offices all over the world, and that has given the company an understanding of nuances between working practices and cultures that businesses can become blinkered to.

“It’s important to understand the differences within an international customer base. Companies believe internally that their program is international, and that its to be followed, but we must adapt because, in reality, that’s not necessarily the case. Same customer, same program, different global nuances. We have to adapt to, be cognizant of, and meet that.”

Hoops adds: “Asia consists of a multitude of different cultures and you can go across one border and be in a completely different environment. You have to adapt and understand differences, even if you’re bringing in outside people, to provide consistency of delivery for the same company via our dedicated project management office. It is a challenge that we recognize, and we’ve worked very hard to try to mitigate.”

But as Calhoun warns, there is a severe challenge to simply using local people, based on the realities of the data center market.

“We use local people, but there are too many projects and not enough commissioning agents, so we have to be flexible in our staffing. It’s not enough to have a native language speaker. We have to have people with the right skills – it’s a very technical and complex position for our teams to be in, and we’re very deliberate about who works and where across the entire gamut.”

Another challenge to quality comes from the often proprietary nature of the data center industry, coupled with the danger of a difference between what companies say they are doing and what’s realistic.

“We encourage customers to be more transparent about technology – everybody likes to talk about ‘sustainability’ or ‘efficiency’ or whatever the buzzword may be. The reality is, a lot of the industry is slow to embrace new ideas because they’re not proven. Meanwhile, most cloud providers are selling cloud space they don’t have buildings for yet, so it’s a mad dash. We try to get customers to be more transparent with what they are embracing. That way, we put people on site who understand and know how to test it.”

There is a danger that the sheer speed of the expansion of the data center industry could make it difficult to meet environmental targets as more and more industries move to a cloud-first approach at pace.

“Even previously wary sectors like pharmaceuticals are moving their data to the private cloud. Why maintain an entire IT staff when you can rent cloud space and be done? Is this sustainable? Most people would tell you it’s not, but they’re going to do it as long as there’s the business because the cloud space is sold.”

One of CAI’s areas of expertise since its early days has been in repurposing and refitting existing facilities for modern standards. Hoops tells us about the pros and cons of this approach.

“Until a really smart person develops a viable compression algorithm that reduces our data storage requirements, data center growth projections are astonishing, but many facilities for refurbishment aren’t up to modern specs. It can be cost-effective but may cost more to completely redesign the power supply, or replace the cooling system. There’s a balance in determining where we can refurbish and where we can’t.”

Calhoun adds: “Retrofits are going to be more of the norm going forward. Early data center buildings are aging, but they’ve not been touched because they’re running at 100 percent capacity. It’s difficult to upgrade something that’s already running, but equally, some are no longer in code compliance. Our challenge is to bring an efficiency model to testing that makes things as seamless as possible and minimizes the risk.”

Calhoun goes on to point out the importance of an ongoing relationship with the client beyond sign-off, one that’s often mired within their internal structure.

“We’d love to have a relationship handover to operations to support things like seasonal testing. That involves having an ongoing relationship with the operations side of the business, and often these things are siloed so we’d love to break that down and provide an ongoing dialogue.”

Bringing together the different parts of a client’s business and forming a relationship across verticals can exponentially increase the value proposition of CAI’s expertise, as Hoops attests.

“Our vision is to be the trusted solution for data centers around the globe, as they accelerate digitalization and expand connectivity for the global community. There’s more than the commissioning aspect. There is a need out there for technical expertise to help the client solve problems that they haven’t found a solution for, redesign older facilities, improve system efficiency or develop operations and maintenance plans – there’s a lot more that we can bring to the table and we want to grow and strengthen that element, to better support our customer base.”

“Partnership is built on trust, first and foremost. It’s important for me to have buy-in on projects’ success on the business development side,” adds Vaden. “To that end, staying engaged with clients is more than just communication during a project cycle, I stay visible and available to clients during events throughout the year, and enjoy hearing what they have going on, personally and professionally.”

But what of CAI’s people? Calhoun explains the pride the company takes in its pool of experts.

“Talent acquisition is a challenge across the globe. The key is to have a robust program to bring in the next generation and train them the right way, not treating them like minions. Externally, we like to forge relationships with all parties. Electrical contractors, mechanics, and equipment vendors. Having relationships is having a trust factor. If problems and frustrations occur, better relationships make it easier to overcome them.”

Vaden emphasizes the importance of bringing in new talent to the industry: “We have a strong desire to invest in the community, one of our core values is serving society. Our division wants young people to know how promising a career in the data center industry can be, so we actively support global, national, and regional industry endeavors.”

To finish, Hoops points to how this investment in people has allowed them to make huge headway in their company mission.

“CAI is an employee-owned organization, and that brings a better culture and a vested interest in success. Everyone cares about each other, and inherent accountability and mentorship are tremendous. We set our people up for a professional development ladder and we’re really invested in it.”

There is a lot to be said for investing in people. The human element of the data center is often overlooked, but as CAI demonstrates, when we forge strong relationships with staff, stakeholders, and third parties, we grant ourselves the adaptability, flexibility, and foresight needed to ensure data center developments are delivered on time and to budget, with excellence front and center, which will ultimately, help forge the future of our industry.

Find out more about CAI’s Data Center Solutions Team here.