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Schools IT Move Not Up to Code, Expert Says


A room built to house computer servers as part of the July move of the Richmond Public Schools information technology department doesn't comply with state building code, according to a local expert in the field.

He says the data center room, located at the Richmond Technical Center at 2020 Westwood Ave., doesn't meet "fire-rated" electrical and construction standards set by the state for the construction of data centers.

The computers in that data room contain student and employee files, and serve as the hub of the school system's computer network.

The expert, who spoke to Style Weekly on condition of anonymity, has specialized in data centers since the 1980s. He builds and maintains facilities for local and national industry names such as Markel Corp., Circuit City, Wachovia Corp., Bank of America and Philip Morris. Richmond Schools initially approached him in 2005 for design advice on its new data center. His services weren't retained, however.

The school system paid architecture and construction firms $277,438.30 to design and build the new data center room, part of more than $700,000 spent to move approximately 20 employees and half a dozen racks of delicate computer equipment to the Tech Center facility from City Hall.

The expert's assessment of Richmond Schools' new data center is based on his examination of original blueprint plans for the room obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by School Board member Carol Wolf.

There's a long list of inadequacies in the design contractors used for the new center, the expert says, including the incorporation of three standard, 2-ton residential/commercial heat-pump units for climate control. The units, required to run 24 hours a day, the expert says, likely will need replacing within three years.

Ventilation ducts and air handlers installed above the acoustical drop ceiling also could become a problem should moisture build up, as is often the case in such units, he says: "Where's it going to leak? On top of your equipment."

School Board Vice Chairwoman Lisa Dawson, whose finance and budget committee is considering the various costs of the move, says the information uncovered by Style adds a freshly troubling layer to the administration's decision to move the data center without full disclosure to or authorization from the School Board.

Doug Green, manager of the school system's department of information and technology, says he was unaware of the building code requirements and was not involved in the design and construction phase of the facility. Plant Services Director Archie Harris, whose department oversaw the construction of the new facility, retired this fall from the Richmond Public School system.

The expert also points to two simple construction details that are on the no-no list for data centers: The first is that the walls of the room are made of standard construction material and don't provide any fire protection, and they are a few feet shy of the ceiling. And three large plate-glass windows providing a view into the data center also don't comply with state code.

"The architect may not have known because they go by Uniform Statewide Building Code," the expert says. Code dealing with data centers is a subcategory found in the state's electrical-mechanical code requirements, he points out.

"Whoever coordinated with these people to build this didn't know how to build a data center," he says. S

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