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Allstate Aims for Improved Reliability and Flexibility with New Data Center
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: This PagePt. 2: Commissioning: Best Way to Ensure Data Center ReliabilityPt. 3: Data Center Operations Require Increasing FM, IT Collaboration
Sustainability is high on the agenda for many corporations today. So when Allstate Insurance Co., the nation’s largest publicly held personal lines insurer, set out to build a new data center, the project goals included improving the organization’s sustainability.
Sustainability wasn’t the only project driver, of course. The new data center was part of a strategy to merge four data centers totaling 106,000 square feet into two smaller, more robust mission-critical facilities. Preliminary work for the new data center began in late 2004 when Allstate commissioned studies based on desired mechanical and electrical infrastructure, site selection and energy efficiency.
“We wanted a design that was forward-looking and incorporated some of the latest advances in data center design and best practices,” says Brandi K. Landreth, director of data center strategy for Allstate. “We needed to plan for growth, flexibility and reliability in order to accommodate future technology needs. Finally, we wanted to live our corporate values of environmental sustainability by constructing and operating a facility in a way that minimizes our impact.” Site selection was crucial to the project. The company wanted the new site close to Allstate’s corporate headquarters in Northbrook, Ill. The site also needed to have the utility capacity to support its high-density computing needs. After exploring and negotiating with a number of neighboring states and towns, Allstate chose a greenfield site 80 miles from its headquarters late in 2006.
Project design began in early 2007 and continued through January 2008. The new facility, which opened in May, runs 24/7 with minimal staff onsite and can be run remotely. With 14,000 square feet of computer room, its racks reach 18kW in some areas. The data center helped Allstate consolidate about 70 percent of the company’s previous mission critical floor space, decrease energy usage substantially over comparable data centers, incorporate mechanical and electrical systems redundancy, and provide the flexibility needed for growth and expansion over time. The engineer of record for the project was Environmental Systems Design; the architect was Gensler.
“This initiative is part of a long-term strategy to transform our IT infrastructure to support our computing needs now and into the future,” says Landreth. “This was accomplished by providing a robust environment to support emerging technologies and improve operational efficiency, availability and disaster recovery.”
Allstate’s data center consolidation came in the form of double convergence. First, all the data and applications from a number of field offices were collapsed into one large enterprise business software network, to be accessible companywide. Secondly, Allstate’s IT hardware was collapsed into two high-density data centers, allowing for virtualization while consuming less square footage and requiring fewer resources.
The new, more robust and hardened data centers also provide a natural opportunity for increased reliability, as they each provide back up for the other. Previously, with five data centers in different locations and varying infrastructure configurations, it was almost impossible to create a back up scheme. But by streamlining the way its IT operations are run, Allstate drove efficiency within the facility design while improving both availability and recoverability simultaneously.
“Virtualization is playing a heavy part in us accomplishing our objectives, but we also used this as an opportunity to rationalize and simplify our environment to better serve our customers,” says Anthony Abbattista, vice president of technology solutions for Allstate.
Over the past few years, software has been developed that allows multiple programs (or applications) to run on a single server or other hardware platform. One way to think about developments is to imagine people commuting to work. In the past, one person (the program or application) rode in a single car (the server). The new software in effect allows all the servers to work together as a single system, like a train.
Two other project goals for Allstate were to be more energy efficient and to earn LEED certification. By employing both innovative heat recovery techniques and reliable, sustainable mechanical/electrical/plumbing technologies, Allstate’s data center is expected to consume substantially less energy than its previous data centers.
A heat recovery system was one strategy the company used to hit both targets. The system uses rejected heat from the data center’s IT equipment to condition its office areas, earning the project Innovation in Design LEED points. Here’s how it works: Heat from the IT equipment is absorbed into the chilled water system, raising the temperature of the chilled water. The warmer chilled water is distributed to the units used to heat the office areas. In addition to recovering this “free heat,” the chilled water temperature goes back down before returning to the chilled water plant, demanding less effort from the chillers and in turn saving more energy.
On a smaller scale, the data center’s battery room mimics this model as well. With the help of exhaust fans and containment filters, the battery room successfully recovers its own exhausted heat, using it to re-warm all the utility areas. Both heat recovery applications are sustainable and economically viable.
The data center was designed with water-cooled chillers. Setting supply and return air and water-side temperatures far apart helped increase efficiency. Working under ASHRAE TC 9.9 2008 guidelines, the data center’s supply water coming from the chillers is set at 53 F, while air from the computer room air conditioner (CRAC) units hits the IT equipment at 65 F and return air from the computer equipment holds steady at 90 F. Using detailed chiller curve information provided by the manufacturers, the data center’s cooling system was fine-tuned to determine ideal supply and return temperatures and flow rates to gain maximum equipment efficiency while also optimizing reliability.
Other measures to improve efficiency include using office windows to provide daylight, reducing the demand for electric lighting. The data center also employs ultraviolet make-up water treatment, reducing both the use and waste of chemicals, eliminating water contamination within the data center and trimming chemical dumping.
The data center is surrounded by native vegetation. Light pollution was reduced by shielding outdoor fixtures, and a low-emissivity, low-reflectivity roof was installed to prevent the urban heat island effect. Alternative transportation is encouraged with exterior bicycle racks, a changing room with .6 GPM showers and locker space, while special parking spaces and charging stations with electrical outlets support electric-powered vehicles. Currently waiting on a ruling from the U.S. Green Building Council, Allstate is hoping the data center will be named one of the first LEED Gold mission critical facilities in the United States later this year.
Allstate Aims for Improved Reliability and Flexibility with New Data Center