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Push and pull: can the data centre industry meet opposing energy and environmental demands?

There is an urgent clash of priorities facing the UK when it comes to IT infrastructure…

We all understand the importance of ICT in a knowledge-based economy. The need for better, bigger, more sophisticated ICT will only continue to increase as Britain strives to compete as a world leader. ICT is a platform for both innovation and productivity. However, current technology and practice are wasteful of resources and without a fundamental shift in both, the anticipated increase will result in an exponential growth in the infrastructure required to support it, with an attendant rise in energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

At the same time, the UK is committed to creating a low carbon economy, rightly seeking to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions whilst employing alternative and renewable sources of energy.

The pressing question is how to satisfy both these equally important drivers?

The question is further complicated by another critical factor that is currently in play. We have to contend with the reality that Britain is facing power brown and blackouts in coming years because of our increasing energy consumption coupled with lack of investment in clean forms of generation. Whilst we may strive (and possibly even succeed) in reducing consumption and increasing capacity of supply, we are unlikely to do so in time to prevent completely the problem of power outages on the national grid. This puts the issue of resilience centre stage when it comes to looking at ICT infrastructure and in particular data centre facilities. Power outages are the second most likely reason why companies have to employ disaster recovery plans (according to research by SunGuard Availability Services).

IDC expects the number of servers worldwide to increase by almost 18% per annum until 2020 – an increase from 18 million (in 2008), to 122 million1. The percentage of those servers which are located in data centres instead of on site is set to increase rapidly. Demand for data centres is high and supply can’t meet it, particularly for those who have traditionally looked to London and the surrounding area for their facilities.
Against this backdrop, it is very clear that data centres must be placed centre stage in current ICT debates across all sectors. Some very serious questions need to be asked, debated and answered.

How can we resolve the tension between these concerns? Fundamentally how can commercial organisations be expected to do this if the Government itself struggles to?

At the Government ICT Goes Green conference in September it was very clear that the role of data centres in a low carbon economy is of great concern. Government can and must take a lead, not just by creating the best legislative and economic frameworks in which carbon emission reductions become a reality and alternative energy sources are promoted, but also by putting its own house in order; adopting best practice; setting an example. The Greening Government ICT strategy aims to make energy consumption of Government ICT systems carbon neutral by 2012, and to make them carbon neutral across their lifetime by 2020. Data centres play a key role in achieving this target.

The selection of data centre space is becoming one of the most important decisions IT procurers will make. In many sectors security is of paramount importance and traditionally, the best way to deliver this is within an owner-occupied data centre.

The owner occupied model provides users with the comfort of knowing they can access the facility whenever they want, change their configuration as required, and rest safe in the knowledge that they are in control of their own destiny. The owner-occupied model of data centre provision has given corporate and government organisations the assurance that any power outages or operational failures are their own responsibility and no-one else’s. Traditionally it has also offered the best standards of security, in that only they control access to the facility.

This is all very well, but today’s cost-cutting driver means that investing vast sums of capital in building new data centre facilities is becoming unviable. Without new data centres, though, companies and government departments alike will struggle to comply with environmental targets, such as the CRC and wider sustainability issues.

So how can the cost problem be resolved at the same time as guaranteeing availability and security and delivering an environmentally sustainable solution? A new business model is now emerging; an outsourcing model with a difference. Outsourcing your data centre means that you transfer the responsibility for capital expenditure and, through market competition, you ensure operating expenses are controlled. But traditionally, this hasn’t necessarily provided the performance of an owner-occupied data centre or the high levels of sustainability required today. Most outsourced data centre offerings involve sharing space and infrastructure with other customers. This creates risk and – more likely – the prospect of availability being compromised by someone else, yet impacting your own performance, with little or no regard for energy efficiency, sources or management.

The future for data centres must lie in the supply of purpose built, scalable infrastructure (power and cooling) and dedicated space but on an outsourced basis – i.e. a discrete, modular, self contained solution in a data centre designed to meet the requirements of a low carbon economy and run by a specialist company with operational excellence at its heart. It is only this model that can begin to address the security and availability concerns at the same time as addressing the cost reduction and sustainability issues of the sector. In other words, it is like having your own data centre but without the capital cost.

And what of sustainability? How is this being addressed by data centre developers?

Investment in IT should be made in such a way as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. IT can, and does, enable services and productivity that saves fossil fuel and reduces emissions. When purchasing data centre capacity from a third party supplier, there are three key elements to consider: the carbon footprint of the facility (design, build and operation); increasing the efficiency of processes, reducing energy consumption; and sourcing of energy (renewable sources?); and the management of waste energy. On the second point, caution is needed – data centre electrical load profiles are generally not compatible with on-site renewable power generation. So, offsite mitigation may be considered as an alternative. The key driver in reducing the carbon footprint is the consumption of energy over the life of the facility. And this is a function of the effectiveness of the facility.

One measurement used to provide an insight into the effectiveness of a specific data centre facility is PUE. Is it all about PUE? Perhaps not but it is certainly a step in right direction. The Power Usage Effectiveness coefficient is the ratio of power entering the facility compared to power used by the IT kit inside it. The closer the PUE is to 1 the higher the efficiency of the system, although a PUE of exactly 1 cannot be achieved. While PUE should not be used to compare one data centre to another, as there are other factors to consider in determining the sustainability credentials of a data centre provider, it is nevertheless a useful starting point. Older data centres tend to run at a PUE of 3 and above. The UK industry average is 2.2. Later this year a new data centre campus will open at Spring Park, Corsham, which will offer a design PUE of just 1.45.

The rural setting of the campus means the proportion of free cooling available is already over 60%. Future plans include an integrated energy management system that will allow waste energy to be recycled through absorption chillers into the naturally cool subterranean environment under the campus. Once deployed, the data centres at Spring Park will achieve a design PUE of 1.15 to 1.2 utilising 100% free cooling.

While PUE is a key metric to use when assessing a data centre supplier, there are other sustainability measures that often get overlooked, so it’s crucial not to get too ‘hooked’ on this one measure.
Data centres have generators for use if the main electricity supply should fail at any time. Most data centres use battery-based UPS to deliver the power once the mains supply has failed and before the generators are operating. However, these batteries require conditioned environments which consume significant energy; in addition, the batteries have a relatively short life and usually end up in a landfill. The alternative and more sustainable option is to use a kinetic UPS system that provides a source of autonomous power, in the event of the mains supply failure and until the generator starts a few seconds later. This means that there are no batteries in the UPS.

I believe that ‘from the ground up’ should be the key to assessing whether a data centre developer is really going to deliver a sustainable option. Too often sustainability is treated as an afterthought and seen as the expensive option but real sustainability, sustainability that is designed into the design, build and operation, will result in a significant reduction in the carbon footprint and will help reduce costs by increasing energy efficiency. The time has come for all sectors to make sure that carbon reduction is placed at heart of their IT procurement, both from a cost and an environmental point of view. When looking at data centres this means selecting a data centre provider who embraces best practice and sustainable first principles in the design, construction, engineering, operation and end of life of their data centres.

The EU Code of Conduct has been introduced specifically to address this and I would urge all IT advisers to look for data centre providers who subscribe to it and are meeting the best practice guidelines it contains.
Choosing your data centre provider is not an easy decision to make but it is probably among the most important decisions an organisation will make in terms of IT performance and its environmental impact.

Reference

1 Source: IDC 2000-2010 Server Forecast

The author

Jeff Thomas, CEO, Ark Continuity

(ITadviser, Issue 60, Winter 2009)

 

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