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IT projects benefit from an outside vantage

IT pros have to wear many hats when it comes to major projects, but consultants can make it easier. Find out what services are out there and how to hire the best one for a project.

Face it, you're in over your head. On a daily basis you're expected to be an expert in computing, networking, electrical and mechanical engineering and probably more. But when it comes to major projects, such as assessing your operations or designing a new data center, you're likely to seek outside help.

To some, consultant is a dirty word. But a growing number of midsized data centers are turning to outside architects, engineers and IT pros to assist with big-ticket, critical projects.

"Ten years ago, a data center was a room with power and air conditioning, and that was it. Today, it's much more demanding. You need flexibility, which means much more attention to integrated design. That just doesn't happen without someone on top of the project," said Robert McFarlane, an expert in data center design and principal with New York-based Shen Milsom & Wilke Inc.

IT pros tell McFarlane that the various contractors working in their data centers aren't interested in aspects outside of their own projects. So coordinating, designing and assessing the various components falls to the facility manager or the IT staff.

"Most of them don't have the time or the experience to deal with this," McFarlane said. "You can't expect people to keep up with it."

Tony Scordino, manager of network services for Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., used consulting services from Blue Bell, Penn.-based Unisys for this exact reason when updating his data center.

"We added a second A/C unit, a UPS for the entire facility, additional electricity in the data center and a generator with an automatic transfer switch. [Unisys] also included little extras like an enunciator panel for the generator in the data center and got us started on all of the proper maintenance procedures for the equipment," Scordino said. "One of the best things they did was coordinating all of the subcontractor work from pouring cement for the generator to all of the internal electrical work. It was truly one-stop shopping."

Scordino said when individual contractors are doing work in his data center, he's had to keep a greater watch over them -- which isn't how he'd like to spend his staff's time and resources.

"Usually they are in for a special project and I only see them once. When [the contractors] are in the data center, one of my staff is with them at all times," Scordino said.

What services are out there?

Third-party companies are offering more services than ever to integrate and tune your data center operations, running the gamut from a simple survey of your IT staff to computational fluid dynamics analysis of your cooling structure.

Some possible services include:

  • On-site operational audits and commissioning.
  • Conceptual design for new or upgraded facilities, including architectural, mechanical and electrical engineering.
  • Fire protection, plumbing and HVAC design.
  • Disaster recovery risk assessment.
  • Battery and parts replacement programs.
  • Standards and best practices development.

    Consulting options

    The types of companies offering data center services falls into three categories. IT infrastructure vendors such as West Kingston, R.I.-based American Power Conversion Corp. (APC) and Columbus, Ohio-based Liebert Corp. offer data center services. Also, major IT companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Global Services, Unisys and Dell Inc. have consulting divisions. Additionally, data center operation specialists such as New York-based EYP Mission Critical Facilities (EYP MCF), Shen Milsom & Wilke and Chicago-based System Development Integration provide an independent view.

    Both vendor-based and independent consultants offer similar benefits, but it boils down to each company's priorities.

    Tom Condon, senior consultant with System Development Integration, said non-vendor consulting services are valuable for their independence. "The resources of the big companies are impressive, but it's also geared toward sales," Condon said.

    According to McFarlane, if your consultant is selling a product, they're clearly going to go with what they're selling. The strong point there is that the vendor will know how to optimize performance of its products better than anyone else.

    McFarlane said some shops like the idea of standardizing on one vendor because all of the parts work together. When something goes wrong, there's one throat to choke.

    On the other hand, single-vendor shops won't get the benefit of more cost-effective or better technologies that are outside of the vendor's portfolio.

    "A good independent consultant is going to give you a wider range of information," McFarlane said. "I've seen situations where people representing a manufacturer as a data center expert were often trained at a manufacturer's course. They're operating from a menu or a formula with a checklist, and that's not consulting in my mind."

    McFarlane also said to watch out for independent consultants who have one person present the plan to the company, but send the underlings to do the work.

    "If the principal gives the presentation, but you're never going to see him again, you're not getting your value," McFarlane said.

    Why go with a consultant?

    IT pros need to know what an outside consultant will do for them. Data center consultants at EYP MCF, Shen Milsom & Wilke and APC offered these reasons:

  • Standards are constantly being updated by organizations like the Telecommunications Industry Association, American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and Underwriters Laboratories Inc.
  • Consultants see a lot of data centers and have a wider variety of approaches.
  • A consultant can establish the facts as they exist from an unbiased standpoint.
  • An outside consultant isn't distracted by operational problems and is dedicated to the project at hand.

    "You can never have all the required trades at the required level of expertise to evaluate all your systems in-house," said Kfir Godrich, senior electrical engineer, EYP MCF.

    On the other hand, not every IT pro feels the need to hand over the reins to an outsider.

    Jim Wilson, an advisory system engineer at San Mateo County, Calif., has spent nearly 40 years working in the data center and feels very confident that his team can come up with the right solutions, without spending the money on third-party help.

    The problem, Wilson said, is that oftentimes upper management doesn't feel the same way.

    "The project I'm working on now [mainframe elimination] is huge. Both my boss and I would be very comfortable working without a consultant because we've done so many different system conversions and migrations. But since our customer departments don't have that confidence, we have retained a consultant to work with us during the strategic planning phase," Wilson said.

    Wilson acknowledged that sometimes a company needs to hire a consultant. But just make sure you hire the best one for your project.

    "If you don't have enough knowledge to make an intelligent selection, find someone in another installation who can give you some pointers. This is where your peer network becomes really valuable. Otherwise, you could very well end up wasting a lot of money," Wilson said.

    Even with an outside consultant running the show, data center managers won't be able to kick back. Throughout the process, in-house IT pros will need to be involved. Data center managers will need to provide documentation of the facility and operations. They will also need to approve any decisions made by the consultant. And lastly, companies should conduct a post mortem analysis of the project to make sure it was worth their time and money.

    Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

    This story originally appeared on

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