ABB’s Dave Sterlace on NoVa, TX and National Data Center Trends: Crypto, Skills Shortages, Renewables Making Waves

LEESBURG, VA — Dave Sterlace is the Global Head of Technology for the Data Center Industry Sector at ABB, and boasts over 25 years of experience in critical power. Dave is responsible for ABB’s technology approach, portfolio and partner development in the data center sector. Prior to his current role, Dave has held numerous positions at ABB including leading ABB Low Voltage’s Vertical Marketing in the U.S, Global Critical Power Segment manager, Global ABB key account manager, and regional business development and sales roles. He is the past Chairman of the Marketing Committee for The Green Grid. Dave will be a featured speaker at both today’s Sixth Annual Washington, D.C. & Mid-Atlantic Data Center Summit and next month’s Sixth Annual Texas Data Center Summit, so we caught up with Dave to glean insight into the biggest trends he is seeing in the trenches of the data center arena.

CapRE: Thanks for chatting with us Dave. How would you characterize the trends you’ve seen over the last 3-6 months on the ground?

Sterlace: There are a couple of things we are observing with our clients. Starting with the auxiliary one, the crypto-currency guys are certainly alive and well. I saw an article that said there is some sentiment that by March or something Bitcoin could hit $23k. That’s speculative, but we’ve found that if you’re able to executive quickly and get your power components out quickly then you can take advantage of that. And Montréal as you know has been the hub of it, because of the readily available and inexpensive power up there. And Blockchain is a whole other story — for Texas in general and Houston in particular, there is a huge amount of healthcare there, that will be an interesting case. Because I think Blockchain is really going to take off in next couple of years for healthcare because it makes sense for digitization of healthcare records.

CapRE: And how about in a broader sense?

Sterlace: Stepping back, in general, we’re having, on top of a tremendous year, another tremendous year. That’s always good news. But we are seeing more interest in what I will call data center automation – more on the actual process side of things. We’re seeing a lot of uptake in folks willing to adopt that.

David Sterlace, Global Head of Technology for the Data Center Industry Sector, ABB

After 4, 5, or maybe 6 years of DCIM being a bit of a football being tossed around, people are settling down and saying maybe that is useful for some things, but they’re starting to treat data centers in general as more of a process industry, like pharma or oil and gas. If you lose production or power, there’s a tremendous cost for it and when you start thinking like that, if you use things like industrial controls and processes, even industrial-grade equipment, we’re starting to see a real shift toward that.

CapRE: Like the industrialization of the internet.

Sterlace: You can all it that, but we are seeing that with a lot of the large-scale guys. The Cloud players are starting to adopt more. Previously you could use a mirror site, but now you’re seeing more variation on keeping an eye on the process – they don’t necessarily have the same 2N+ topology they used to in the single site, but because of where they locate and how they connect to power grid, they’re getting more reliable power. And it’s becoming more like a process plant than ever before. That’s definitely kept my interest as well lately. We are looking at it from a couple different ways.

However, customers are telling us that speed to deploy is still key but the method to get there is different. Now there are different ways to do that. A couple of years ago they were throwing hands up thinking, why do we need that many tests in there? it was taking tremendous amount of hours in that process. We have found that with techniques in digitization and even from other industries, that we can streamline it — using digital instead of analog or replacing copper with fiber. And the benefits are immediate. You can do things like reduce your start up time by 85%, reduce the amount of wires by 90%, and cut the commission time down.

CapRE: So tell us your thoughts on Northern Virginia.

Sterlace: Northern Virginia remains strongest market in the whole world. Which is incredible. But we are running into things like availability, because of production issues and things like that. The scale and the pace that it’s moving at are tough for vendors like us to keep up with. I was speaking with a general contractor the other day and they said something I had never considered – they said the lead time on a tractor trailer was 9 months – it used to be three weeks. So it’s being stretched. And as an electrical vendor, I had never considered that.

There is also a shortage of qualified workers, which we’ve all heard, but it’s more impactful than I had imagined. I think that with my vendor peers, if we can keep folks up to date and let them understand where we are and be transparent about communications leads we can come through this together. And we can certainly move stuff around and prioritize, like all manufacturers, but there is a point at which it will take awhile for some things.

CapRE: What about Texas?

Sterlace: Looking at Dallas, it’s more diverse. There is a lot of different things happening there and it is bubbling along very well. Texas has been a great opportunity for us. I certainly look forward to being there with you guys in Dallas.

CapRE: And what else are you looking forward to in general about the two events? What themes do you anticipate will be particularly salient?

data center summitSterlace: I’m always interested in hearing the perspective of operators – the challenge they go through and how they solve problems. That’s where I live. Also the design community – it’s an exciting time in design. We are talking lessons learned. At one time it would be a fairly boring topology but it’s exciting now because people are trying new things and have a freedom to look at stuff in a different way.

Looking at the IT side, whether it’s Open-Compute something like that, let’s just start fresh and see how we can do it differently. It’s not applicable to all customers but it should drive some innovation and hopefully reduce the cost of the design and the entire system moving forward.

It will also be interesting to see what happens with the large players like Google and their PPAs for renewables. It’s making an impact. To see how we can better integrate things and use the data center as a more active part of the grid. We’re working with customers in Europe on frequency response for the grid. We’re not quite at the “data center as power plant” model yet but we’re closer. And as we move forward we’ll see more of it and get closer.