We need data centres to thrive

April 15, 2013

–Cyrille Brisson is EMEA Vice President of Power Quality at Eaton. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Last month, British wholesale gas prices surged to a record high after one of the UK’s main import pipelines was temporarily shut by a technical fault, and continuing wintry weather led to delays restocking the domestic gas supply.

Not only do the power shortages threaten availability, they are also pushing the costs of energy up, which is having an effect on an area that is proving to be the engine room of growth: data centres. With the data centre market growing at 25% between 2010 and 2011 in the UK, according to Datacenter Dynamics, 2012 saw 7.6 million square metres of data centre space available, £2 billion in investment and 6.4 Gigawatts of energy consumed – enough to power six million homes.

To combat this we need a regulatory environment and company culture that rewards efficiency. At the moment, data centre managers often have few incentives to pursue energy efficiency and worse, well-intended regulation (in the form of the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme) is actually driving investment in greener data centres outside the UK.

The issue with CRC is simple: large data centres that host and run systems for multiple organisations are facing punitive taxes compared to other EU countries for consuming large amounts of energy. However, it is by most estimates twice as energy efficient for small and mid-sized companies to co-locate their IT in these shared facilities than host and run within their own premises.

Fortunately, the standardisation bodies are about to consecrate the already widely used data centre Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) numbers as a common efficiency measure for that industry, which could and should pave the way for this measurement to be substituted in for the generic CRC regulations.

When it comes to company culture, the data centre manager’s task is to maintain uptime and availability; regardless of whether all assets are being used. That tends to mean things are switched on, and left on. Balancing reliability against a rapidly increasing bill from an electricity supplier is becoming a very important calculation for businesses.

Happily, there are steps that can reduce waste without sacrificing uptime.

  • Virtualisation, in which physical servers for individual applications are replaced with virtual servers, dozens of which can run on a single machine, meaning a smaller number of computers need to be powered because a larger capacity of each computer is being used.
  • Modular backup power supplies switch internal modules off so that remaining hardware runs at higher utilisation. The energy consumed by a data centre before it gets to the servers themselves – the all-conquering PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) number that modern data centres are measured by – is significantly improved.
  • Better managing the flow of air through a server room to provide free cooling, or containing hotter devices in a specific area to concentrate cooling demands can also create efficiencies.

We need to allow the hidden factories that power our information economy to grow in a sustainable way.

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