Energy lockdown

Back in November 2007, Greg McCulloch, managing director of data centre operator Interxion, signed a contract with his electricity supplier EDF for 13 megawatts (MW) of power, which will be used to power his company’s data centre in the City of London. And he is applying for more.

There’s nothing unusual in that – except that, at the moment, Interxion is only using 4.5 MW. It is paying for the rest, even though it isn’t using it, to ensure the business has a rock-solid future. “I don’t want to get to 2011 and find that there is no capacity until 2013, after the Olympics,” says McCulloch.

Interxion doesn’t reveal what it pays for power, but insurance like that doesn’t come cheap. At commercial prices of around 6p a kilowatt hour (kWh), 13 MW of power costs £780 an hour, or £18,720 a day. Many others are paying just as heavily to ensure that power supplies to their data centres are uninterrupted.

Interxion is just one of dozens of data centre operators that are having to develop new strategies to deal with the data centre energy crisis. A combination of very high demand and constrained supply is affecting almost everyone in the data centre business. The situation is particularly acute in London, where the 2012 Olympic Games (with its estimated IT costs of £400 million), the £30 billion Crossrail link and the expansion of the highly computerised, data centre-intensive financial services industry are all playing a part.

“Our clients are suffering – they just can’t get the power,” says Alex Rabbetts, co-founder and MD of Migration Solutions, which offers data centre design, build and operations expertise. Where possible, he says, data centre operators are looking to build new capacity outside London. One client, he says, was told they will have to wait ten years for a 4 MW supply at their London location. He expects years of shortages before things improve after 2012.

In short, the largest concentration of data centre power in the world – with facilities stretching from Heathrow to Canary Wharf – is running dangerously short of electricity. And the businesses that depend on those engines of modern commerce are envisaging an unpalatable scenario: that constrained data centre capabilities will
cap off their business expansion plans.

Capital constraints

Talk to any data centre operator or developer the world over, and they will know all about London’s power problems. The capital’s crisis is notorious, partly because it is being served up as a cautionary tale by all those in favour of new power generation developments, and partly because suppliers of ‘green’ or energy-efficient IT cite it as a good example of why organisations should buy their energy-saving technologies.

The London case is extreme, but not unique. In almost every major city, and every major development, there are some localised issues regarding power supply. Cities such as Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Paris, for example, all face some shortages and infrastructure problems in certain districts. New York, meanwhile, generates 80% of all its power within the city itself, creating notorious shortages thanks to an ageing underground transmission system that is seriously constrained.

All this is pushing power prices up, changing the economics of running data centres and, as a powerful and positive side effect, encouraging data centre managers and CIOs to make plans for a new generation of green data centres. Indeed, without the background power crisis and rising energy costs, it is doubtful if the hard-edged business people investing in and running data centres would be quite so willing to invest in energy-efficient (and reduced CO2 emission) technologies.

But what has perpetuated the crisis? In London’s case, the need for EDF to reserve power for the Olympics is certainly a contributory factor, but it is not the main cause. And nor is the imminent demand for power that will come with the new Crossrail trans-London rail link. Rather, it is a combination of soaring demand for power for IT and other applications, coupled with delayed or inadequate provision by governments, planning authorities and utilities companies.

The City of London and Canary Wharf have sucked in huge amounts of power during a 20-year period of sustained, dramatic expansion. This includes dozens of large, new data centres, transport systems and huge new buildings such as Canary Wharf Tower and the Swiss Re ‘Gherkin’.

Even lighting is a major power draw. In 2007, a BBC investigation showed that 30 companies left all their lights on in Canary Wharf Tower, wasting an estimated 4.7 million kWh each year.

Over the same period, supply issues have become more critical. Large-scale coal production in the UK has all but ended, North Sea gas has begun to run down, and the first generation of nuclear plants are nearing the end of their lives.

But IT itself is a major cause of problems, with data centres sucking in far more power than had been anticipated five years ago. In fact, after the technology sector crash in 2000/01, most utilities had little reason to expect a surge in power demands. In 2001 and 2002, demand for data centre space, and hence power, actually slumped.

But that situation has changed dramatically. From 2002 to 2007, energy use by servers, along with the power and cooling infrastructure that supports them, doubled, according to the 2007 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report to the US Congress on data centres, creating severe power supply issues for data centres around the world. This has been fuelled by a huge range of applications, from real-time trading systems, to voice- and video-over-IP, to compliance requirements, to Google and YouTube. There is no sign of a slowdown.

Outside the law

At the same time, Moore’s Law, which continues to drive ever greater processing and power density in IT, is not being matched by similar improvements in IT power efficiency. A 2007 study by distinguished technologist Christian Belady (formerly of

HP and now at Microsoft) showed that processing performance rose by 75 times from 1999 to 2006, but performance per watt only improved by 16 times.

But there is a third factor. Moore’s Law has also not been matched by similar improvements in the mechanical and electrical side of the data centre, such as

the ability to remove heat. This means that yet more power (and space for yet more cooling equipment) is needed to remove the heat. Heat removal is as much a crisis in the data centre as is the shortage of power.

This means that a square foot of data centre can do a lot more processing, but it also requires a lot more power. In terms of density per rack, power requirements have risen from 1 kW to 2 kW per rack in 2001 to 20 kW or more today. Some are planning for twice that.

“We need to see energy efficiency improve faster than Moore’s law,” says Ken Brill, executive director of the Uptime Institute, a data centre advisory network, at a recent London conference. Brill has been warning of this crisis for many years.

Unfortunately, two years of ‘Green IT’, virtualisation and all the talk of energy-efficient data centres appear to have made little impact; if anything, power use by data centres is accelerating. Taking real figures from the metered power bills of its members’ data centres, the Uptime Institute found that a dramatic increase in annual power consumption occurred during 2006 and 2007. And although the power use growth rates for the group as a whole was “only” about 10%, the growth in energy use at the biggest third of the data centres leaped from 7% to 22%.

“Kilowatts must be part of every application and hardware decision,” says Brill, who also urges CIOs to put more pressure on manufacturers to improve energy efficiency.

It is not hard to see why. Those struggling to source power in London can take some small comfort from the fact that they are not alone. If the US government’s own figures are correct, 10,000 MW of new power will be needed in the US to support growing consumption by data centres between 2006 and 2010. From 2010 to 2015, a further 20,000 MW will be needed. That is power generation on a monumental scale – 30 new 1,000 MW power stations. “That’s enough to get the attention of government,” says Brill, anticipating legislation to force greater energy efficiency.

UK power suppliers, meanwhile, are doing what they can, sourcing nuclear (and theoretically renewable) energy from France, upgrading the grid with new equipment that reduces transmission losses and ensures better availability, and seeking permission to build nuclear, gas, coal and renewable generating plants. But all of these, for different reasons, are running into opposition at the planning stage.

The official line from EDF Energy, London’s prime supplier, is that the Olympics is not preventing it from delivering power to other businesses that need energy. It has a $2 billion investment programme leading up to 2010. But it has warned commercial customers that demand is high and rising, and that timing is critical. Early notice of any power requirements is important to avoid waiting, it says.

Nonetheless, the business risk associated with such constrained resources is going to send many more companies in the footsteps of Interxion, encouraging the purchase of any supply that is available for their data centres.

Responding to the crisis

How are CIOs and data centre builders and operators responding to the current crisis? That depends very much on what kind of business the enterprise is involved in, and what kinds of applications need to be supported.

Two major investment banks that spoke off the record are planning new data centres to the West of London, where power is more readily available (thanks to the contraction of local industry) than at Canary Wharf where their main offices are located. In each case, energy efficiency design and practice is a top priority, overriding capital investment issues. Vital, low-latency applications will be kept locally, though.

The crisis in central London has led to many new developments around the M25 – near enough for staff and to overcome most latency issues, but away from the most expensive and power-constrained sites. Digital Realty Trust and TelecityGroup are both building data centres around this ring. BSG has moved data centres out to Surrey, leaving one in the Docklands as a hub.

Others are working on their power suppliers, securing as much capacity as they can – data centre operator Interxion will make reliable power supply part of its marketing message. Greg McCulloch, Interxion’s MD, says that organisations new to London, or without a track record of buying large amounts of power, or those in new buildings without a supply infrastructure, are likely to have to wait, while those with good relationships with power companies can get new capacity.

This is proving true for some big financial institutions and data centre operators, who have secured power commitments for the future. BT and Telecity are among those still building new data centres in London, and both say power capacity is available as long as early warning is given.

Chris Smith, sales and marketing director of data centre infrastructure specialist On365, suggests that understanding the local conditions is important. East London is limited, but he says he knows of (undisclosed) locations with 20 MW of power, north of the Thames and with easy access to the City.

Moving completely away from London is frequently cited as an option, but most co-location and managed services providers say clients still want their data centres nearby, either for latency reasons or for staff and support reasons.

However, some are moving at least part of their data centre capacity out. Netcetera, for example, has moved its data centre to the Isle of Man, where it can source 30 kW a rack, far higher than it could get in London.

Availability is not the only issue. London is short of good data centre space, even with limited room for power expansion, and that has pushed up the prices of leases. Combined with power price increases, London has become an extremely expensive place to house a data centre.

Article by Andrew Lawrence, former editorial director of Information Age and now research director for eco-efficient IT at The 451 Group

Further reading

Crossed wires Challenging the conventional data centre thinking

Colocation’s hunger for power Demand for rented data centre space is soaring, but co-location providers are under intense pressure of their own

Find more stories in the Data Centres Briefing Room

Avatar photo

Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

Related Topics