The Changing Role of Mission Critical Facilities

Bernie Woytek joined HKS in February 2019 to focus on expanding our mission critical work. In this interview, Bernie offers his insights on what’s next for critical facilities, from data centers to urban farming. Read on to hear how it all connects.

What are mission critical facilities?

BW: Simply put, they are facilities that are essential for organizations to operate. Data centers are the most common, which include airport control towers, stadium broadcast facilities, call centers and more. Data centers are at the forefront of market growth because our society is critically dependent on our cellphones. We need critical facilities to meet our data and communications needs, connect us with information, goods and people, too. Data Centers house the computers that make these connections possible.

Why are so many critical facilities top-secret? Can a critical facility become a showplace?

BW: Today, critical facilities are not necessarily top secret, but they can be targets that could interrupt a company’s operations if damaged or destroyed. Critical facilities must be secure and must operate 24/7. Those that are most protective of their confidentiality are typically financial or government institutions who fiercely guard their constituents’ data privacy. Utility command centers along with power and gas generation and distribution operations are other examples of critical facilities that must be secure at all times.

But there are institutions that consider their critical facilities showpieces that improve their marketability. Some universities, for example, tout their supercomputing facilities to attract top researchers and students. Similarly, tech companies may want to position themselves as having the most modern facilities so they can say to potential employees or collaborators: you will have access to these tools if you come work with us.

Can you expand on the role that supercomputers play at universities? How is that changing?

BW: High performance computing isn’t just surging at universities; they are playing a key role wherever research happens. National laboratories, health systems and universities all utilize supercomputers for research. Their prominence ties into the evolution of society and the never-ending demand for speed to process huge amounts of data. It took years for us to break down the gene through DNA and genome studies. Initially, research on computers took weeks or months. As processing speed expands exponentially, the time required to process data was reduced to days, hours and finally minutes. Today, complicated models and analytics take a fraction of the time they once required. Whether material sciences, physics, astronomy, genetics ­– the number of things we can now handle in minutes means our capabilities have expanded exponentially. There are financial ramifications, too, because there is a limited amount of grant funds allocated to research and time is money. Faster computing makes the most of this investment, which means that grants are more likely to be given to facilities able to do things other can’t.

You want to design more data centers for health institutions and systems. Why?

BW: Health systems have evolved to where modern technology is vital to their operations. The amount of data they store and the speed with which they deliver it is amazing. Ten years ago, my father had a stroke and was at the Cleveland Clinic where I went to visit him. When the doctor examined him, instead of standard charts, he used a laptop to access reports and results with the flip of a finger. That speed was amazing to me. To be able to work on the Cleveland Clinic’s data center and see what they are doing to leverage their data was incredibly powerful and inspiring. The processing capability of their critical facility enables them to improve off-site care and nursing visits, orchestrate complex staffing, and it makes their care teams more mobile, agile, smarter and faster. Staffers disclosed that with the new data center, the efficiency and time gained, and number of people staff could care for, significantly increased.

In health sector work, getting information quickly can make the difference between life and death decisions for care providers.

Are data centers always stand-alone buildings?

BW: No. Data centers are often found within larger buildings. They can be a small component of larger building. Their size and location are driven by the business model of the client. Some need separation for security reasons or limited land reasons. With others, it’s more a reflection of square footage costs. If you are renting space in a dense urban area, your data center often doesn’t need to be on-site.

The first data center I did years ago was the computer room at Arlington Park Racecourse; it was more than 30 years ago now. At that time the data center ran the wagering and betting processes. The Park’s processing needs have grown since then to include broadcasting, display screens, social media and AI experiences. These all feed into the contemporary sports experience.

The data center at AT&T Stadium, designed by HKS, runs all these systems as well, and it is also advertising for AT&T. Connectivity is part of the AT&T brand, as it is for communications companies. It’s their core business. So, an AT&T-branded critical facility in the most famous football stadium in the United States is great positioning for them.

Many people think of critical facilities as buildings for machines. Is that fair? What about the people who work there?

BW: Data centers are buildings primarily created for machines. But data centers are just one type of critical facility. Command centers, for example, have greater human interface. Because that human interface is critical, supporting the well-being of their employees is critical. Utility command centers must be up 24/7/365. The people who work there must be alert, focused and well to achieve peak performance. Airport control and broadcast centers are strong examples of the kind of critical facilities where this is true.

The No. 1 cause of failure or incident in a command center is human error, so we must make sure that the environment supports the people there so that they, like the systems they control, operate at peak performance.