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27.02.2013

What do Data Centres do for you?

Over the past couple of years the words “data centre” have begun to be used in the general media. With events such as Super Storm Sandy’s flooding of some East Coast facilities and the mass adoption of Mobile Devices the general public has been introduced to the terminology, and given some idea of the purpose they serve. Despite this the vast majority of people I speak with, outside of the industry, have no idea what data centres are or how modern life is totally dependent on them.

When speaking at business seminars I often find myself defining what a data centre is and how we are serviced by them. After a presentation at a recent event, I was taken aside by a Senior Executive of a technology and communications business who said he broadly understood what a data centre was but not the extent of our personal, and his business’s dependency on them.

I do understand why this is the case though, like much of what happens in IT Departments most users/employees only see what happens on their desktop or mobile device. IT services are only thought about when things aren’t working properly. They function as an enabler and in some ways are hidden in plain sight.

So for those of you that know what data centres are and what they do for us it’s your time to switch off and for the uninitiated welcome to a whistle stop guide to data centres and what they do for you.

WHAT IS A DATA CENTRE?

If you take the European Code of Conduct for Data Centre Energy Efficiency’s official definition a data centre is any facility that houses computing equipment that is supported by its own dedicated power and cooling infrastructure.

Wikipedia says the following – A data center or computer centre (also Datacenter) is a facility used to house computer systems and associated components, such as telecommunications and storage systems. It generally includes redundant or backup power supplies, redundant data communications connections, environmental controls (e.g., air conditioning, fire suppression) and security devices.

Businessdictionary.com – Computer facility designed for continuous use by several users, and well equipped with hardware, software, peripherals, power conditioning and backup, communication equipment, security systems, etc.

All the definitions above describe the same type of installation. The thing to take from these is that none of them define a physical size or capacity. There is no minimum or maximum size for a data centre.

Most of the talk in the general media, and within the data centre industry itself, is about the big projects; facilities the size of multiple football pitches and housing thousands of cabinets. However most data centres are considerably smaller than this and many organisations operate their own business critical facilities in-house.

WHAT DO DATA CENTRES DO FOR US?

Certainly here in Britain we are totally dependent on data centres. In fact modern “life” as we know it would cease if we were to switch them all off. Quite literally everything and anything you can think of will have a level of dependency, so here’s a few to get you started; all mobile technology, phones and tablets etc, all forms of electronic payments for your groceries, your wages, your direct debits, mortgage, rent, council tax etc, etc. All centralised transport systems, the Underground, air travel and trains. Your utilities, water, gas, broadband, etc. THE INTERNET and all that is does for us, such as banking, eBay, amazon, Facebook, Linkedin, Wikipedia, YouTube and the list goes on and on and on. The television and radio programs we watch and listen to. Absolutely anything associated with the “Cloud”. Any imported goods whether by sea or air. This is just a few but you get the idea.

Just before Christmas I was speaking at a data centre conference in Africa and I wanted to explain how even countries with GPD’s predominantly based in agricultural production have a growing dependency on data centres, and to a degree are already tied in to the services they provide.

In researching before the event I found out that Kenya, for example, is one of the world’s largest exporters of cut flowers and the industry employs a significant number of people. To ensure these products get to market fresh and vibrant they are air shipped to their destinations. This whole industry relies on data centres to both get the planes in the air and to complete all the financial transactions associated. The dependency deepens as mobile payment services are growing across the whole of the African continent incredibly quickly and many organisations now pay staff using their mobile phones, which rely on data centres to support this service.

Data centres use lots of electricity.

In short, yes they do. Compared with a normal office block or residential property data centres use vastly more electricity.   The average household in the UK uses approximately 5000kWh of electricity over 12 months, in comparison a micro data centre with just 20 moderately loaded cabinets and a PUE of 1.4 uses 981,120kWh in the same time. A large facility housing 1000 moderately loaded cabinets with a good PUE of 1.2 uses 42,048,000kWh. This is the equivalent of 8,409 households.

Although the numbers above are pretty big and there is no denying data centres, through their energy consumption, do produce a lot of CO2 let’s put the numbers in to perspective. The highest estimates for Northern Europe’s data centre energy consumption are around 65tWh, this produces around 32,500,000 tons of CO2 per year. In comparison the lowest estimates for CO2 produced by Europe’s air travel is 125,000,000 tons of CO2 per year. This means almost all the CO2 produced by all of Europe’s data centres could be “off set” by grounding 1 in 4 flights. Food for thought.

WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF A DATA CENTRE?

This will depend on the owner operator’s motivators and drivers but as a generalisation the most import aspect of a data centre is its ability to stay “on”. This is usually referred to as uptime. Most facilities are designed to provide the highest level of availability or uptime they can, within certain constraints. The major constraint often being budget. Uptime is achieved by building resilience into systems. Resilience is achieved by building in redundancy. This means essentially having more elements such as pumps, chillers and other services than is required to operate the data centre. This means should one element fail there is enough capacity in the remaining functioning elements to maintain live services.

Uptime is often represented with a percentage. Below are some examples;

99% = 87 hours of down time in a year

99.9% = 8 ¾ hours down time in a year

99.99% = 52 minutes down time in a year

99.999% = 5 ½ minutes down time in a year

The resilience built in to a data centre is expressed with a Tier Rating.  There are fundamentally two sets of Tier Ratings. One set by the TIA and the other by the Uptime institute. The TIA structure assesses the resilience of the whole facility from security and operation to power and cooling. The Uptime ratings are more focussed on, as the name suggests, uptime. We will be producing a blog in the next few weeks that looks at Tier specifications in more detail.

WHAT IS THE FUTURE FOR DATA CENTRES? 

Put simply data centres are here to stay. As we and the rest of the world become more dependent on technology, and in particular mobile technology, data centres will sit at the heart of everything we do.

Cloud services will become the norm, with domestic users utilising public clouds to store photos, music, etc. Business users will continue to use a combination of in-house and 3rd party systems and solutions.

The number of data centres will continue to rise, some of which will be very large, others very small and some in the middle. The fact is one size does not fit all. The perfect solution for one company or group of users will be totally wrong for another.

Very small data centres can be just as energy efficient or inefficient as big facilities. It all comes down to how they are designed and operated. Future-tech has completed a true Tier 3 specification micro data centre that only houses 24 cabinets. This facility has an annualised Power Utilisation Effectiveness (PUE) ratio of 1.16 at full capacity and 1.3 at just 20% capacity.  This is class leading energy efficiency no matter what size facility it is compared with.

The thing I would like to see in the future is a focus on reusing the heat produced by the IT hardware and the use of renewable energy technologies to power data centres. Future-tech has designed and built three data centres that can reuse the heat they produce. We are also designing two separate facilities that aim to operate solely from a renewable power sources.

With the decommissioning of power stations around the UK the Electricity Industry as a whole needs to find better more sustainable ways of keeping our lights on.

If you’d like to learn more about data centre design, how to ensure energy efficiency and provide less carbon intensive IT services contact us at info@future-tech.co.uk

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