A peek inside United Airlines Greenfield Data Center Project

The trip from nine data centers to a single greenfield facility for one of the country’s legacy airlines involved a little midflight turbulence but resulted in a safe landing.

United Airlines’ data center consolidation project is one of the most energy efficient in the U.S. and even makes use of a Kyoto cooling wheel.

It was complex to combine nine data centers — some were colocated, one was in a high rise in Houston and some were barely rated Uptime Tier II, however all of these were combined into one Uptime Tier IV data center just outside Chicago, said Tom Songaila, director of IT critical facilities and data center engineering at United Airlines.

Construction of a greenfield data center has become less common over the past five years with the growth of cloud computing and colocation providers, according to Jason dePreaux, a data center analyst with IHS, in Austin, Texas.

However, the consolidation of multiple data centers remains common, whether that results in a greenfield data center, colocation or a move to the cloud, dePreaux said.

Part of the reason United has so many data centers is its merger with Continental Airlines — the Continental data centers were included in the process.

The United data center project was commissioned in 2013 and went live in 2014. Its area is 166,000 square feet on 16 acres, with enough spare room to double in size. The building is rated to withstand an EF4 tornado and seismic activity stronger than the Chicago area has ever seen before. And the data center’s available power is 4 MW — expandable to 6 MW.

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Energy efficiency was a major project goal, and a big part of that was the Kyoto cooling wheel. Songaila estimates the 20-foot KyotoCooling Kyoto wheel saves $1 million annually in operating costs and eliminates 19,544 metric tons of carbon dioxide output each year by foregoing chiller-based computer room air conditioners (CRAC).

The facility has a power usage effectiveness average of 1.09 and during the next 10 years, the United Airlines data center, when compared to a less efficient operation, is expected to save 420 million KWh of electricity, 115 million gallons of water, $35 million in operational costs and 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

The use of free cooling is a trend in greenfield data center construction that reduces energy consumption from CRAC and other power-intensive options.

Most greenfield data center projects still use OEM cooling systems from major makers such as Schneider Electric, Emerson Network Power and Siemens, but the Kyoto wheel is a great way to use free cooling.

A Liebert DS CRAC from Emerson is used for the electrical areas of United’s data center not cooled by the Kyoto wheel. There is also raised floor throughout the data center, which was chosen to make cabling easier.

United also used Emerson Network Power’s Trellis data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tool — which took more work to get up and running than Songaila had thought.  “We do expect to see the fruits of our labor,” he added.

United’s greenfield data center also has 2N backup, using two power supplies from two different substations. In addition, there is an onsite diesel backup that can last for at least 48 hours. The uninterruptible power supply system is also ground faulted.

The integration of United’s data center and IT teams won the recognition of this year’s Brill Awards for Efficient IT from the Uptime Institute. The awards highlight projects that “improve the industry’s ability to sustainably deliver IT services to end users while minimizing cost and other resources.” United Airlines was one of two winners of the Global Leadership Award; the other was the Boeing Company.

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About Five 9s Digital, LLC

Five 9s Digital is a data center real estate company offering data center development, investment sales, real estate advisory, and colocation and wholesale data center selection and procurement services. Five 9s Digital has been involved in the development and ownership of multiple mission critical facilities from single user build-to-suit facilities to multi-tenant data centers. Five 9s Digital brings a wealth of experience, background and expertise in providing solutions to the data center arena. Due to the specific and yet evolving requirements of mission critical end users in today’s world, Five 9s Digital is able to offer real solutions, real facilities, and real choices due its extensive and up-to-date knowledge base. Five 9s Digital is a Best Data Sites Certification Alliance™ member.
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