UTK students are learning the intricacies of data center design through ORNL facility tours and real-world projects

What do you learn in a supercomputing data center course that has almost nothing to do with supercomputers? If you take the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s (UTK’s) Data Center Design course, it turns out you learn a great deal.

The class is coordinated jointly by UTK’s Tickle College of Engineering and the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and offers a unique look at the interdisciplinary field of data center design, which encompasses everything from project and risk management to architecture and telecom system design. Through expert-led lectures and real-world examples, students learn how to design and maintain a data center that can operate for decades and support the increasing power and infrastructure demands of world-class computing systems.

A key experience of this course is an on-site tour of ORNL’s Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. When COVID-19 restrictions made on-site tours nearly impossible in 2020 and 2021, the course organizers were forced to adopt an entirely virtual format. However, in October 2022, students returned to ORNL for an in-person tour of the OLCF’s 62,000 square feet of data and computing space.

Long shot photo of the front of the HPE Cray EX Frontier supercomputer showing the logo and electrical boxes above the system.

Students toured the data center that houses Frontier, an HPE Cray EX exascale supercomputer. Photo: Carlos Jones/ORNL

The tour offered students an up-close look at the many components that comprise a data center, including power, cooling, data storage, and infrastructure. The students then use this information to complete their final project: a full design and formal proposal for a new data center. The project is designed to mimic the request for proposal submission and review process.

“The data center design class is about everything but the computers,” said John Wade, an electrical engineer and the ORNL course coordinator. “What we’re teaching students is how to build a facility that will accommodate the computing systems we have now and the ones we’ll have in a decade.”

Because data center design involves so many distinct engineering and computer science disciplines, finding individuals with all the necessary skills is challenging. The class aims to fill this gap by introducing students to these disciplines and by challenging them to apply their knowledge through a data center design proposal at the end of the semester.

“This class gives students a holistic picture of all the elements you need to know to build a data center. It gives them that good, broad exposure,” said Bart Hammontree, technical project manager at ORNL and a course contributor. Hammontree, who has served as the ORNL course coordinator in previous years, teaches project management for data center construction. He covers project management tools and techniques, phases of construction, developing estimates, risk assessment, and safety.

“My goal is to give a good overview of what is involved in designing a data center so students get a feel for the day in the life of a data center engineer,” Hammontree said.

Upward photo showing the blue and green pipes of the cooling infrastructure supporting the Frontier supercomputer.

Cooling tower pipes for Frontier. In addition to visiting Frontier and Summit, students toured ORNL’s electrical and cooling facilities. Photo: Carlos Jones/ORNL

Wade and Hammontree have worked closely with UTK’s UL Professor of Practice David Icove to prepare materials, tours, and lectures that encompass the complexity and diversity of knowledge that data center design requires.

“I think students walk away from this course with a much greater appreciation for the breadth of disciplines that are required to create a data center,” said Wade.

Despite small class sizes in the early years and the unexpected challenge of a global pandemic, the class has continued to grow. The adaptations required for remote learning—recorded lectures and guided virtual tours—have allowed the organizers to teach more and more students each year. Icove hopes to expand the class to include teachers and professionals from other national laboratories. In any case, the future of the field looks bright.

“We’re trying to expand the class,” said Hammontree. “The level of participation and the quality of the deliverable we get at the end of the class continues to improve over time. The students seem to be getting smarter and smarter every year.”

In addition to Icove, Wade, and Hammontree, ORNL staff who contributed to the course through lectures and tours included Jim Rogers, Paul Abston, Rick Griffin, David Grant, John Gutman, and Jimmy Landmesser.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle LLC for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://science.energy.gov.