As growth in data center capacity continues, the industry is having to adapt its construction methods to maintain safety, DCD's virtual Energy Smart event heard today.

The Covid-19 pandemic has struck at a time when demand for data center capacity is expanding rapidly, and has applied restrictions to the construction of new facilities. Faced with these two factors, the data center sector has had to modify its building practices to continue to deliver new projects, said Microsoft's general manager of construction Doug Mouton, in a presentation to the DCD event.

Trimble-HoloLens-2-Device-1 microsoft.png
Microsoft HoloLens adapted for construction workers – Trimble

New ways to work

"We are learning a new way to work," said Mouton. "Covid-19 represents a new reality for all." As in other sectors, the pandemic is accelerating a move to digital working which is likely to have permanent results: "I think that we may see waves of this pandemic ebb and flow. But we must always be on guard."

As well as implementing social distancing worker screening and hand sanitation on all its sites, Microsoft is using technology to ensure worker safety, he said: "We are finding ways to get the work done and protect our people at the same time."

This includes the use of Microsoft Teams for daily update meetings, while other tasks are supported by body cameras and mixed-reality headsets. "We can plan the work without having to be in front of each other. We can do safety logs and commissioning events with body cameras and heads up displays using HoloLens."

Under the restrictions put in place during the pandemic, data center construction has continued: in the last few days, AWS has opened a region in South Africa, and Digital Realty's Interxion has announced plans for a campus in Paris.

However, there have been pauses and suspensions. Last month, Facebook reported a temporary halt at its construction sites in Clonee Ireland, and Huntsville Alabama, citing Covid-19.

“My clients that are operators are concerned about ongoing construction projects," Rob Plowden, head of the US data center practice at legal firm Eversheds Sutherland, told DCD. "They're concerned about how they are going to continue operations when we think we're going to see supplier shortages and material shortages.”

Mouton said that the pandemic was an example of the sector's focus on safety, where it already has a very good record: "The US average recordable incident rate is 3.1 [which means 3.1 workers have to visit a doctor for every 100 people on site]. Our global safety performance on data center construction for Microsoft is 0.59. While it's better, it's nowhere near our aspiration, which is zero people get hurt."