Case study: Sudlows pushes tight-squeeze datacentre to the limits

Award-winning project turned a would-be office block into a high-capacity, energy-efficient colocation facility in six months

Datacentre design and construction specialist Sudlows has been at the forefront of innovative infrastructure developments for more than 100 years. Founder Albert Sudlow’s first contract involved changing Manchester’s street lighting from traditional gas to a newfangled technology known as electricity. 

The company, which today turns over around £16m and employs 165 staff, still prides itself on pushing the technological boundaries. Its creation of a highly efficient datacentre in a small would-be office block was judged the year’s best private sector project in Computer Weekly’s European Datacentre Awards.

The Belle Vue datacentre was built on the site of an old petrol station in Manchester. The owner had begun developing an unused corner of the plot as an office block, but part-way through the work he decided to convert it into a datacentre. 

“He’s very entrepreneurial and I guess he’d identified colocation as a good business to get into,” says Sudlows’ mechanical services director Gary Frith. “We’re based a couple of miles down the road, so he approached us to come up with a solution for his budget.”

Rising to the colocation challenge

To say the project was challenging is an understatement. 

The plan was to host more than 160 server racks in a building with only 400m² of space, spread over five floors. Not only that, but there was only a small service lift shaft available to the construction team, so every piece of kit had to be precisely measured and carefully lifted into position on each floor. 

“We put a temporary lift into the shaft, but much of the kit needed to be carried, piece by piece, up the stairs. It took a good few weeks to get it all in, and we also had to reinforce some of the floors,” says Frith.

Sudlows had to ensure the datacentre would always have sufficient power and was cooled efficiently. 

“The building had 1.5KW of usable power, and we also put a couple of 600KVA diesel generators in the basement, which meant forming special openings in the concrete to get them in. Even then, we only had millimetres to spare and had to take bits off the generators to squeeze them in,” says Frith.  

The company used an efficient fresh air cooling system, with the radiators placed separately with the uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) and low-voltage switch gear on the ground floor, since there was no space for them in the basement with the generators.

The remaining three floors house the server racks – 53 per floor – with power and communications fed from above. 

“Since it was designed originally as an office block, there was a significant height restriction. There was no space to fit in a raised, modular floor or a suspended ceiling, so we had to be very inventive,” says Frith. 

Each floor is fitted with 11 highly energy-efficient Liebert-Emerson air-cooled, in-row cooling units which automatically adjust to match the datacentre’s cooling needs at any particular point. 

“The datacentre uses the minimum amount of power possible for air-conditioning. It has a PUE of around 1.4, which given the constraints we had to work under is exceptionally good. Although some solutions offer better PUE figure, we couldn’t use things like evaporative coolers because of the space restrictions,” says Frith.

We managed to create a highly efficient datacentre with a capacity to match facilities twice the size

Gary Frith, Sudlows

Noise was also an issue. “There’s a hotel nearby, so we had to make sure the building wasn’t too noisy. All the air-cooled condensers are on the roof, the exhausts on the diesel generators are double-silenced and the radiators have oversized coils and slower rotating fans on them. The generators don’t run unless there is a power outage,” says Frith.

Datacentre efficiency and power in a tight space

Despite the various challenges, Sudlows successfully completed the project in little over six months. It is a testament to what can be done in a restricted space with careful planning, innovative design and expert execution, says Frith. 

“Fortunately, we have a great deal of expertise in-house, including full-time electricians, comms guys and fibre optics specialists. We had around 20-25 people maxed out on the project throughout,” he adds.

“It was one of the most innovative and challenging projects we’ve done, but I’m proud to say we managed to create a highly efficient datacentre with a capacity to match facilities twice the size.”

Frith adds that the client, while not yet fully up-and-running, is delighted with the result: “He’s starting to populate the server rooms and everything works well. In fact, he’s now thinking about building two or three more datacentres on his old petrol station sites around the North West.”

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