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First Glance: Behind the Development of UL’s Data Center Certification Program

May 1, 2017

In May 2017, UL announced the development of a new program to certify data centers internationally.  A new standard being developed, UL 3223, will serve as the basis for the certification program. The driver? Mass adoption of cloud computing has created a significant new risk: the potential to affect large numbers of companies and individuals in the event of a cloud services provider data center, infrastructure or network failure.

According to RightScale’s “2017 State of the Internet” report, 85% of enterprise organizations have a multi-cloud strategy with 59% having more than 100 virtual machines or “VM’s” in either Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. A Statistica survey projects the public cloud market to hit $126 billion in revenue by 2020, up from $25 billion in 2015. Software and Platform as-a-service offering are projected to add another $32 billion.

With such incredible cloud momentum, the potential impact of a wide-spread outage from a major provider grows daily. To mitigate this risk, cloud providers need to address the most common causes of outages, which include human errors, software issues, network downtime, hardware failure with corresponding failure of high availability architecture, and of course data centers.

Currently, cloud providers can design their data centers to varying degrees of reliability. Some cloud providers state their redundancy is built into their network, and therefore less redundancy is required within the data center to achieve desired uptime. Every year, Eaton publishes its Blackout Tracker, identifying outages on a per state basis. The guide outlines outages and what the causes of outages are including human error and weather. For the last ten years, California is consistently the state that has the most outages, and houses one of the highest amounts of data centers in the nation. California had 470 utility outages in 2016, up from 417 outages in 2015. In the United States in 2016, there were 3,879 outages affecting over 17.9M people.


With few existing options to protect the end user, UL is developing a new certification program that provides end-user transparency, provider accountability and proper data center documentation to further mitigate operational risk. Through this program, data center owners and operators will further benefit by differentiating their service with the trusted UL brand and having more performance based options to avoid over-engineering. The UL Data Center Certification Program will address the continued reliability of key components of critical infrastructure by integrating multiple disciplines to create a comprehensive service. Professionals from technology, engineering, fire and life safety, security, commissioning, and eco-energy backgrounds from around the world are working closely to provide a best in class experience to data center owners and operators.

Leveraging its extensive years of expertise in building safety and performance, UL will address the fire, life safety and security aspects of data centers, and ESD, recognized as a leader in data center design, will evaluate the electrical, mechanical, telecommunications and building automation systems.

UL fosters safe living and working conditions for people everywhere through the application of science to solve safety, security and sustainability challenges. The UL Mark engenders trust enabling the safe adoption of innovative new products and technologies. Everyone at UL shares a passion to make the world a safer place. We test, inspect, audit, certify, validate, verify, advise and train and we support these efforts with software solutions for safety and sustainability. Partnerships with businesses, manufacturers, trade associations and international regulatory authorities allow UL to bring solutions to a more complex global supply chain.

A global company, ESD is a leader in Improving Society Through the Built Environment. It creates design solutions that produce economic, environmental and experiential benefits for its clients, many of whom are the biggest names in the worlds of business, technology — and beyond. ESD embraces technological change and is in the forefront of the design of data centers. The firm emphasizes innovation, adaptability and sustainability when providing mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, life safety and technology engineering.

“Most of the individual data center components, systems, and products have gone through a standards-based UL certification process, and as a result, we are uniquely positioned to take a more holistic view as it relates to certification, commissioning, and annual re-commissioning of a single building’s critical infrastructure systems,” states Chris Hasbrook, vice president and general manager for UL’s Building & Life Safety Technologies division. “This program supports UL’s mission of promoting safe living and working environments, which includes the rapidly growing cloud services and colocation markets, as well as the buildings and infrastructure that support them.”

Relying on the trusted UL brand can save small to midsize businesses (SMBs) time and money when it comes to vetting potential cloud and data center deployment providers.

Many Fortune 1000 companies have large budgets and can afford to keep data centers in-house-only outsourcing a small percentage to cloud. As a result, they can invest heavily in data center redundancy, compliance and certification. Most SMBs on the other hand, will not have the purchasing power of the enterprise and tend to rely more on outsourced data center services and leverage the certifications of the provider.

Protecting the Data Center Consumer

The UL Data Center Certification Program will provide services for the full spectrum of data center consumers – from small, public cloud users to large Fortune 1000 entities with diverse hybrid IT implementations. Within the overall industry, the data center consumer can largely be defined in two ways: the public consumer, who is benefited by public cloud offerings such as Netflix or Facebook, and the enterprise consumer (including business of all sizes and government agencies), an organization that outsources its internal processing to a colocation/wholesale provider.

The combined expertise of professionals at UL and ESD will support data center consumers with services that promote safety and security within data centers, as well as optimal data center operations for cloud and colocation providers in the following ways:

Branding and Marketing Value – The UL Mark is internationally recognized for safety and reliability and will validate a cloud or colocation provider’s data center, providing potential customers with the confidence to outsource.

  • Economic Value – The new UL 3223 standard will encourage the utilization of the latest in data center technology, creating efficiencies and corresponding budget optimization.
  • Simplicity and Efficiency– The combined resources and expertise of UL and ESD will enable design reviews and site surveys to be accomplished in weeks not months.
  • Flexibility – UL Data Center Certification will apply to new data center design and construction facilities as well as existing data centers with very clear, concise, and transparent requirements to eliminate any gray areas or market confusion.

Five Critical Components of UL Certification

In addition to a dedicated focus on electrical and mechanical systems, UL Data Center Certification will incorporate five critical components that can be attributable to data center outages such as security, communications, facility hardening, fire, life safety, and sustainability.

  • Concurrently Maintainable – All critical infrastructure / system components shall be maintainable without downtime using proper redundancy.
  • Reliability – All critical support systems shall be designed to achieve optimal reliability through acceptable redundancy –  2N, N+1 Block Redundant, N+1 Distributed Redundant.
  • Security – The program demonstrates passive and non-passive physical security requirements, including exterior and interior attributes and three levels of security and redundancy.
  • Sustainability – Data centers being certified must achieve an annual Power Usage Effectiveness of 1.5 or lower and include a mechanical system that offers a source of free cooling.
  • Commissioning – UL Data Center Certification will demonstrate proper commissioning techniques to encompass Level 5 testing. Existing data centers will provide commissioning reports, whereas new data centers shall have a certified Cx agent on site during IST commissioning.

The History of the UL Data Center Certification Program

In 2016, based in part on UL’s own experiences, UL began to consider the development of a program to focus on the reliability and safety of data centers. UL approached Environmental Systems Design, Inc. (ESD) to assist in the engineering services portion of the UL Data Center Certification Program.  ESD is widely regarded as a thought leader by influencers in the data center engineering, colocation and hyper-scale center industries. Together, UL and ESD deliver superior enterprise expertise, program development and go-to-market strategy.

“ESD is a critical partner to the UL Data Center Certification Program, and we are collaborating on many different levels,” continued Hasbrook. “Once we began to put the pieces together, everything fell into place. ESD was embedded in the data center industry and understands the required designs to achieve our objectives.”

Raj Gupta, CEO and Chairman of ESD states, “This is really a game changer both for ESD and the data center industry in whole. We are very excited to have teamed up with UL and the brand that they carry worldwide.”

UL and ESD have a combined capability that will benefit data center owners and operators as well as end users.

The initial service offering is planned to be available in North America in 2017. The new program will be available in Europe, followed by Latin America and Asia, in 2018.

Phase II: UL Data Center Certification Program

Developing standards and certifications often takes time to define, create, and distribute.  UL has had great success in this arena as part of its core business. Upon the rolling out of Phase I of the UL Data Center Certification Program, now focused on fire, life safety and security elements of Data Centers, UL anticipates adding certifications in additional areas as a Phase II of the service.  These areas include operations, training, webinars, and personnel certifications. Additional certification categories, such as cloud, healthcare, government, enterprise, and colocation can be attached to the baseline certification. Technical requirements will be associated with each of the categories. UL will notify data centers as updates are developed.

“The combination of UL and ESD services together has also created an aggressive marketing program that will include speaking engagements, advertising, trade shows, and industry sponsorships.”

“There are so many possibilities within this program,” commented Gupta. “Phase I is just the tip of the iceberg.”


Neil Lakomiak                                                                          
Director of Business Development and Innovation

Paul E. Schlattman
Senior Vice President, Consulting Practice Leader
ESD Consulting