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From Informative to Normative: How Important Are Data Center Classifications?

Henry Franc

Portable cabinets along the sidelines at the Super Bowl. Devices that capture and transmit data in a Tesla. Small edge sites in container solutions. A control room in an industrial plant. An on-premises data center in a hospital. A supersized hyperscale data center that supports companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. What do they have in common? They’re all data centers. And they each have vastly different needs because they fulfill vastly different purposes.


There are countless data centers across the globe serving thousands of applications in all kinds of markets. Every data center is designed and built to support specific needs and applications. With this broad range of definitions and use cases, how can the industry possibly develop standards that provide helpful guidance to all types of data centers? It’s a difficult job—to say the least.


But that’s the goal of the ANSI/TIA-942 Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard for Data Centers. It spells out minimum requirements for data centers and their physical infrastructure. In addition to covering site space, layout, cabling infrastructure and environmental considerations, ANSI/TIA-942 also includes annexes for data center reliability and other AMEP (architectural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing) considerations.


The annex includes four data center classifications or ratings that relate to various levels of infrastructure resiliency. Higher ratings correspond to higher levels of resiliency. The ratings were originally created in collaboration with the Uptime Institute’s Tier data center classification system as a foundation and are as follows:


  • 1: Basic Site Infrastructure. A data center that offers limited protection against physical events, with single capacity components and a single, non-redundant distribution path to serve computer equipment.
  • 2: Redundant Capacity Component Site Infrastructure. A data center that offers improved protection against physical events as compared to the first rating. It features redundant capacity components and a single, non-redundant distribution path to serve computer equipment.
  • 3: Concurrently Maintainable Site Infrastructure. A data center that protects against most physical events, including those in the first two rating classifications. It features redundant capacity components and multiple independent distribution paths to serve the computer equipment.
  • 4: Fault-Tolerant Site Infrastructure. A data center that protects against nearly all physical events to maintain availability, including those in the first three rating classifications. It offers redundant capacity components and multiple independent distribution paths to serve active computer equipment. Rated-4 data centers are designed to allow for one fault without causing downtime.


A Change Is Ahead for Data Center Classifications


Historically, these data center classifications have been considered informative. Their purpose was to provide users with suggestions, recommendations and guidance that should be considered when seeking a certain level of redundancy, resilience and the ability to recover from unplanned events.


In 2019, however, TIA announced its TIA-942 Certification Program, which certifies data center facilities based on conformance to standards. As a result, when ANSI/TIA 942-C is released later this year, the data center classification annex will be changed from informative to normative—there are too many variables to capture in the ANSI/TIA-942 standard. Instead of voluntary guidelines, they will now be considered mandatory—steps that shall be taken in order to achieve a certain level of performance and obtain a TIA-942 Certification for doing so.


ANSI/TIA-942 Provides a Trusted Starting Point


While the philosophy behind the data center classifications in the normative annex is quite valuable, it’s also important to realize that overreliance on prescriptive standards won’t automatically create the data center—or level of reliability—you want or need. In this case, TIA uses a predefined checklist to measure availability. That’s why many industry professionals prefer informative guidance or considerations that they can use to make context-based value judgments. Standards only look at technical performance as a recognized value, but there are many more value-based considerations to think about in the real world, including cost, purpose, resources, time and other constraints.


Cookie-cutter approaches rarely work in every situation. They can’t possibly take into account the mission of your specific data center, and they don’t always provide the opportunity to think outside the box or make decisions that will serve your environment, application, technology and people best.


For instance, uptime matters more in a life-saving hospital setting than in a retail store. The demand for things like concurrent maintenance, fault-tolerant electrical systems and temperature monitoring in these two environments is likely very different.


As another example, data centers also face different types of physical events. If a data center is located in the middle of a major city center amid lots of heavy construction, then creating diverse pathways for carriers is likely more of a priority than for a data center located in a remote area.


For these reasons, we believe the annex tables serve as a solid starting point. From there, however, it’s okay to determine your own requirements based on what your data center demands.


To Certify—Or Not to Certify?


Remember: Certification itself is never the goal. Instead, the objective is to address valid concerns about availability and performance.


If data center certification is important (if you need to demonstrate to customers that the data center has been independently assessed to meet the requirements of ANSI/TIA-942, for example), then certification can certainly help you meet that need. It’s also crucial, however, that you make decisions to align with the specific needs of your environment.


If data center certification isn’t a critical part of your plan, then consider the information about data center classifications to be a baseline for the level of performance you must achieve. It can offer guidance to achieve a certain level of performance. Act on what makes sense and stay true to your data center’s mission in the process. If something in the tables doesn’t align with your situation or needs, then you don’t need to incorporate it (unless certification is a priority). Or you may find out that you need to vastly increase requirements.


Which Option Is Right for You?


Which is most valuable for your data center project: to gain the approval of a third-party auditor or certifier—or to know that your data center is protected while being able to perform and respond the way you need it to?


Whether your data center is the reason your business exists or is complementary to your core purpose, bring Belden into the discussion. We can help you walk through ANSI/TIA-942, determine which data center classification makes the most sense for your goals, evaluate whether certification might be beneficial and help you make the right decisions. Reach out to our data center team to learn more.


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