Data centres are the physical footprints of the information economy. As such, they are subject to fluctuations in economic growth, developments in computing technology and patterns of information consumption. In 2011, these all conspired to put the European data centre sector in limbo.
Uncertainty about the future of the Eurozone meant that businesses were reluctant to provision new infrastructure, while virtualisation continued to reduce the physical footprint necessary to support the required computing power.
At the same time, the rise of cloud computing means that IT workloads that might traditionally have been handled in local server rooms are being consolidated into large, wholesale data centres. Plus, as always, information volumes continued to expand.
In September, a survey of European data centre operators by property services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which included both corporate occupiers and hosting providers, found that around 60% had expanded their functional floorspace in the previous six months, mostly by less than 20%. Just under 50% expect the size of that floorspace to expand in the next six months, it found.
David Willcocks, director of the company’s data centre division, remarked that, despite the Eurozone crisis, the attitude among European data centre operators appeared to be “wait and see rather than anything worse”.
Meanwhile, a recent study of data centre co-location providers in Europe by another property services firm, CB Richard Ellis, found that operators in Amsterdam enjoyed high levels of demand in the third quarter of 2011, while operators in London and Paris experienced “a more challenging business environment”. The company concluded that this was due to the “absence of significant corporate demand” in those cities.
Some companies are certainly building out their data centre footprint – most noticeably the large web and cloud computing operators.
These new-builds tended to exploit renewable sources of power and cooling. In September, for example, Google opened a new data centre located in a disused paper mill in Hamina, Finland. The facility uses water from the nearby sea for cooling and is powered by wind turbines.
The web giant also announced plans to build a €75 million facility in Dublin, from which it will operate a mix of services including search, social networking site Google+ and Google Docs. The facility will take “advantage of Ireland’s naturally cool climate and uses outside air to cool computers instead of costly and energy- hungry air conditioning units”, according to Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency.
In October, social networking giant Facebook revealed its intention to build three data centres in Luleå, Sweden, just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. The facilities will use 85% less diesel fuel for backup generators, the company says, thanks to ‘dual redundant substations’, which feed power from two independent sources.
“The redundant substations allow us to reduce the number of generators installed by approximately 70% and minimise the environmental impact due to reduced emission and fuel storage,” Facebook said in a statement.
These location choices reflect the fact the power is now the primary consideration in data centre provisioning. That fact is also reflected in the emerging practice of modelling the performance and output of power infrastructure to support the design and operation of data centre facilities.
Engineering giant Arup, for example, uses a tool called Prognose to model the power performance of the equipment it installs in the data centres it builds for clients. Based on a database of standard equipment, the tool allows the users to assess the power performance, and therefore cost profile, of hypothetical configurations and layouts.
Andrew Harrison, leader of Arup’s global science and industry business, told Information Age that the tool had allowed one client to drastically cut the upfront capital cost of building its data centre. “By mapping out the projected IT loads, we were able to demonstrate that the client could delay building one of its generators until the third year of the project,” he said.
Similarly, the UK division of investment bank Nomura uses a tool from software vendor nlyte to ensure that the power infrastructure in its London facility is used as effectively as possible.
Every component of the infrastructure, from the power distribution units (PDUs) down to the plugs, is modelled in the software. This model is combined with data describing the performance of the hardware and from environmental monitoring tools to give Nomura a clear view of how much power each server encasement is using.
“We try to make sure every cabinet is using all of its power allocation,” explained Mark Andrews, a data centre manager at Nomura. “It’s about maximising the use of the power that has been allocated.”
When the Environment Agency unveiled the inaugural CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme performance table in October, ranking the UK’s largest organisations according to the volume of their carbon emissions and a measure of their attempts to reduce them, one of the largest data centre operators in Europe found itself near the bottom of the league.
Global Switch, which operates two large co-location facilities in London’s Canary Wharf, produced 155,000 tonnes of CO2in the UK during the 2010/11 reporting year, according to the performance league table.
It has not recently introduced smart metering and has not been accredited by the Carbon Trust as an efficient energy user, which meant that it received an ‘early action’ score of zero.
Global Switch’s MD, Andrew Pike, told Information Age that the company had been misrepresented. It has used automated energy meters for years, and it could not demonstrate the year-on-year reductions in emissions that the Carbon Trust wanted to see because the occupancy of its data centres is growing.
The performance table could be a problem for UK data centre operators in the coming years, as future editions will base the rankings partly on year-on-year improvements.
Data centre operators argue that they improve the efficiency of UK industry by consolidating IT equipment into centralised, optimised facilities. However, as these facilities grow, so too will their energy consumption.
So unless they can significantly increase their use of renewable power, UK data centre operators are likely to drop down the rankings, supposedly leading to negative publicity or even fines. No wonder the data centre sector is generally opposed to the scheme.