Building for the Big Data Revolution

In today’s digital world, data centers are the foundation for the future, and meeting the insatiable need for data takes speed and power.

Today, nearly every aspect of daily life generates or relies upon mountains of data. The world’s citizens will take more than a trillion photos this year, mostly on smartphones. Data is fighting disease and decoding DNA, while helping marketers predict and shape buying habits with startling proficiency.

The integration of sensors and public works software is creating smart cities that rely on the power of data to run extraordinarily efficiently. Data-driven smart homes are moving far beyond digital assistants to connected ovens and video-enabled doorbells. Document archiving, virtual reality, movie streaming, business analytics and texts — it’s all data. 

The world’s population is increasingly data hungry. National news outlets are reporting that up until 2003, humans created 5 billion gigabytes of information. By 2011, that same amount of data was generated every two days. Astronauts rocketed to the moon on a miniscule fraction of the data available on a first-generation iPod. And the digital universe will continue to more than double every two years, reaching an estimated 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020.

It’s no surprise data processing and storage has become a necessary utility, like electricity or water. “In a digital society, data centers are the foundation,” says Kyle Pynn, department manager at Burns & McDonnell. “And demand, these days, is insatiable.”

The Inherent Potential in the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) sounds futuristic, but it refers to a concept that’s very now — the connection of devices to the internet. Everything from cars and transportation networks to fitness trackers and machine components is on this ever-growing list. According to Forbes, the 11 billion devices connected to the internet right now will likely explode to 80 billion by 2025.

Accompanying this surge of devices is extreme growth in data and analytics. Companies of all sizes are seeing big opportunity in capitalizing on big data to drive business decisions. Any organization that generates or needs data is a potential data center client. This includes large enterprise companies like Facebook and Microsoft, governmental and academic organizations, banks and retailers. Colocation providers are also a growing audience, offering businesses a chance to rent space to serve their data needs. A recent study showed 87 percent of companies thought data analytics would enhance their competitive landscape within three years.

“We’re already upon that transition,” says Robert Bonar, regional practice manager at Burns & McDonnell. “Today’s top public companies aren’t in oil or manufacturing; they’re tech enterprises. Companies that are leveraging the power of data are redefining their industries and creating new opportunities.” 

A typical Fortune 1000 company could see more than $65 million in additional net income from a mere 10 percent boost in data accessibility. Big data is saving billions annually by helping to cut energy costs in buildings. Even General Electric — a traditional industrial company — is making a swift move toward digitizing its world, investing roughly $2 billion in software company acquisitions by the end of 2016. 

The digital revolution has created an extraordinary level of pressure to develop more powerful data centers. The shift to cloud computing demands a still larger commitment to data center infrastructure. The industry needs capacity, scalability, security and sustainability — and quickly. 

In a world dependent on data, solutions that get operationally optimal facilities online faster create a competitive edge and a reliable foundation for growth.

“Companies are focused on speed to market and low cost of ownership for their data centers,” Bonar says. “Their core business is finding efficiencies to boost profitability, which is a formula that translates perfectly to data center development.” 

Delivering Capacity With Powerful Connections

Data centers are being built on an unprecedented scale, accounting for about 2 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S. Ten years ago, a 10-megawatt (MW) data center was considered substantial. Today, 100-MW centers are becoming more common, with some as large as 600 MW. For facilities that require such enormous amounts of energy, reliable and affordable power is a massive advantage.

“The interaction between data centers and the utilities that serve them has been a transactional relationship instead of a true partnership,” says Michael Bell, a project manager at Burns & McDonnell. “That’s a missed opportunity. There exists the capabilities to transform the way data centers are deployed by collaborating with energy providers.” Data centers benefit when their power source is reliable and cost-effective; utilities benefit when a customer can bring a large, predictable load.

The benefits of a reciprocal relationship don’t end there. Data centers and utilities can take advantage of essential infrastructure that’s already (or soon to be) in place, lowering total costs for both parties. The assets on the grid — as well as ones being added — match those necessary for data centers: power generation and energy storage. 

“The capital and operational savings that could be realized though rethinking how these two industries do business could be substantial,” Bell says.

A Mix of Scalable Assets to Match Strategic Plans

Not every new data center tops the 100-MW standard, nor should it. Customer expectations for streaming speeds and response times have dramatically changed over the years. In today’s instant gratification culture, people want answers and access instantly — whether that’s uninterrupted streaming music or a Google search that delivers relevant results within a split second.

“Data storage providers are trending toward a scalable fleet that answers the demands of their unique population,” Bonar says. That might mean larger, remotely located centers to meet storage requirements combined with smaller facilities in metropolitan areas for activities that require agility and quick response times. 

Hybrid, modular or pre-fab solutions are additional opportunities to provide scalability on a budget. Bonar suggests an integrated design-build approach to construction. 

“It’s not common in the data center world yet, but the advantages it has shown in other industries is instantly translatable,” he says. “Scalability rests on the speed of delivery, which is a hallmark of the approach.”

Integrated delivery methods can shorten project schedules by as much as 35 percent, Bonar continues, allowing clients to meet previously impossible deadlines. 

Protecting Against Threats, Digital and Physical

Data security and sovereignty are hot button issues. After all, this is an environment in which news articles offer tips on how to make sure a home’s Amazon Echo or Google Home doesn’t spy on its owner. And while cloud computing has freed companies to expand into new geographies, data sovereignty is driving a need to locate facilities in-country to keep a citizen’s data within borders.

The protection of information and assets feels very personal, whether it’s consumer or corporate in nature. Data centers — as a necessary part of the nation’s critical infrastructure — require protection. They face larger issues than theft and vandalism, from cybersecurity to physical attacks. 

Compliance standards can help, but regulatory requirements don’t always keep up with best practices in asset protection or with a changing threat environment.

“There is no boilerplate solution for every environment,” says Brandon Kehl, a senior project manager and physical security consultant at Burns & McDonnell. “Are locked doors and alarm PIN codes enough, or does the facility need armed guards and monitored surveillance? A well-planned security profile can provide the best answers for the budget.”

Sustainability on a Global Scale

A green approach is important to data center clients. A high level of energy efficiency is standard these days, so companies are turning their attention to the power source behind the servers — and opting for renewables. In 2017, Google will reach 100 percent renewable energy for its entire global operation. Microsoft, whose data centers have been carbon neutral since 2012, created an executive-level position focused on reaching increased renewable energy goals. 

Noting the significant energy footprint of the IT sector, Greenpeace began benchmarking energy performance in 2009. In its Clicking Clean report, it gave high marks to companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft — and an increasing number of smaller tech-focused organizations — that purchase renewable energy credits to offset loads and invest in the associated renewable energy. (Not all well-known favorites fare as well. Instagram and YouTube get A's, but Spotify and Pinterest didn't make the grade.)

Burns & McDonnell has called upon its renewable power generation specialists to help data center clients reach a carbon neutral position.

“Whether clients are relying on solar, wind or other renewable energy solutions to either directly power data centers or offset the energy used from more traditional sources, we are able to provide a suit-to-client approach to support this effort,” Bell says.

Keeping Up With Stratospheric Demand

The world’s brightest minds predict the data revolution has only just begun. Tech billionaire Elon Musk forecasts a rise in artificial intelligence that will send the demand for data further into the stratosphere. He thinks the world is about a decade away from rising unemployment levels thanks to robot workers and human-driven vehicles usurped by self-driven cars. These and other emerging transitions are relentlessly tech- and data-driven. 

“We haven’t even touched the surface of big data’s capabilities; it’s a complex and ever-evolving business,” Bonar says. “These companies are using the data centers we help design and build to literally redefine the future. It’s an exciting space to be in.”

Want to learn more about the powerful connection between utilities and data centers? Read our white paper here.

What Requires Data


  • Computers
  • Tablets
  • Mobile phones
  • Wearables
  • Beacons

Artificial Intelligence

  • Connected machines
  • Virtual assistants (like Alexa)
  • Smart homes
  • Chatbots
  • Driverless vehicles
  • Medical diagnostics

Personal Documentation

  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Social media
  • Blogs
  • News feeds

Business & Industry

  • Industrial automation
  • Integrated medical records
  • Logistics
  • Predictive maintenance
  • Real-time inventory
  • Digital data storage


  • Client relationship management (CRM)
  • Sales data
  • Demographics
  • Web usage tracking
  • Custom campaigns

What Data Centers Require

The Right Site

  • Proximity to need
  • Climate
  • Affordable land costs
  • Streamlined permitting
  • Economic incentives
  • Community buy-in 

Power Generation

  • Considerable, consistent power
  • Integration with generation
  • Reasonable rates
  • Relationships with utilities
  • Transmission infrastructure


  • Water usage efficiency (WUE)
  • Power usage effectiveness (PUE)
  • Operational efficiency
  • Decreased environmental impact
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) systems 


  • Energy efficiency
  • Reduced waste
  • Performance-increasing software
  • Dynamic load placement
  • Renewable power — to supply or offset

Speed/Low Cost of Ownership

  • Integrated design-build delivery
  • Quality construction
  • Commissioning
  • Reduced owner risk/staffing
  • Modular/pre-fab solutions
  • Builder as developer
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Michael Bell Project Manager 816-448-7471
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