Testing, testing

How mission-critical testing makes modern data centres possible By Jacky Pluchon, Vice President EMEA Power Solutions at KOHLER-SDMO

In the mission-critical world of data centers, backup generators are expected to provide reliable power in an instant every time they are called into action. These ultra-high standards of consistency are delivered, in part, by an unswerving commitment to testing that ensures every new generator is right first time.

Reliability is critical in a market that is expanding at a rapid pace. We now generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily. With the emergence of megatrends such as 5G, the Internet of Things and cloud computing, that astonishing figure is likely to keep rising for some time to come.

Infrastructure spending is increasing, too, with end-user investment in data infrastructure expected to reach $200 billion in 2021, according to the latest research by Gartner, representing an increase of 6% from 2020.

From edge to hyperscale

The types of data center being built are also becoming more diverse. From edge through to colocation and hyperscale, the industry has embraced modularity and scalability as it looks to provide space, power, and cooling for network infrastructure in a much broader range of architectures and configurations.

This growing technical complexity places additional responsibility on the supply chain. Mission-critical generators are now needed in a much wider variety of power nodes, and often need to be built to a bespoke specification. And for applications where backup power must deliver when required, without fail, each generator must be designed, built, and tested to the most exacting standards, meeting all customer requirements for the task at hand.

Investment in testing infrastructure

These market pressures mean that ongoing investment in testing infrastructure is essential to keep pace. At Kohler’s main European generator production site in Brest, northwest France, testing capabilities have been significantly expanded in recent years, with test cells now catering for largescale generators up to 4,500 kVA. Technicians use detailed quality and control documentation to cover off all aspects of the production and testing of all parameters relating to the generator’s operation. Additional tests can be performed in a variety of specific areas, including power at specific customer-driven increments up to 100 per cent, fuel consumption, vibration, noise, and other mechanical and electrical parameters. These tests are performed to validate the baseline design, giving the customer confirmation that their complete specification has been met.

Emissions testing is also a vital component of the approvals process. Diesel generator exhaust contains a mixture of emissions, including nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter – all of which need to be carefully monitored to adhere to all relevant environmental standards across all markets.

Strict testing regimes of this nature require access to state-of-the-art facilities. For example, some tests are performed on open sets within factory test cells, while others take place with the generators installed inside custom designed acoustic containers. For data centers, reliability is critical: so, durability tests must be conducted over extended periods, sometimes running for up to 200 hours or more.

This means that final inspection can be a much more efficient exercise covering documentation, quality, O&Ms, and other factors specific to the customer, rather than an exhaustive and time-consuming technical process immediately before shipping. Data center customers have strict requirements for standards and specifications, and this approach to the inspection process ensures that final gen sets can meet customer requirements first time.

The development of new technologies

Our extensive test cells also allow for in-house research and development activity. In recent times, engineers have been focussing their efforts within ISO-certified laboratories on important areas such as emissions reduction technologies for Stage V compliance and the suitability of cleaner and more sustainable fuel types.

In each case, individual generator components and wider sub-systems can be designed, prototyped, tested, and refined, as engineers embark on an iterative loop of improvements that might one day feature on a new generator model.

Remote witness testing

Full transparency throughout the testing process is must – with customers invited to the production plant at intervals across a project’s lifetime to ensure confidence in both quality and projected timelines. In pre-pandemic times, data centre operators were regular visitors to the Kohler site in Brest, with more than 170 witness tests carried out in a typical year.

More recently, with the restrictions in travel, those tests have needed to be performed remotely. That transition has required investment in digital tools to allow specialists from engineering companies and data center operators to monitor testing procedures in real-time, from anywhere in the world. Split-screen video and analytics are relayed from the plant to the customer’s PCs, allowing teams to work together and drill into any necessary datasets.

While this shift was a necessary adaptation, it demonstrates how customers can be fully in tune with testing processes, regardless of locale.

No one-size-fits-all to test

Ultimately, data center customers do not want a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to testing procedures. Engineering companies and end-users prefer a collaborative approach to generator development, whether in person or remotely through their screens.

Kohler has invested heavily to ensure that these expectations can be met, with another $6 million being spent on new infrastructure at Brest over the next couple of years. Whatever the customized requirement, our rigorous testing processes ensure that our diesel generators are always fit for purpose - meeting specification first time, every time, whatever the size of the project.

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