Future of the Data Centre

In 2006 and 2007, popular concern for the environment combined with fears for future availability of electricity supply to make energy efficiency the chief concern for executives with responsibility for data centres.

Since then, economic concerns have somewhat eclipsed the green IT initiative. But the shift in mindset that took place in that period, towards thinking about corporate IT farms in terms of energy inputs and outputs, has persisted. And as Information Age’s recent Future of the Data Centre conference heard, it is proving invaluable as organisations strive to improve the cost effectiveness of their data centres.

Tim Anker, founder and director of data centre agency Collocation Exchange, explained to delegates that when assessing the capacity of a given data centre, describing it in terms of physical space is almost meaningless. “Commercially, these days, you need to think about power rather than space,” he said.

Seen through the lens of cost per kilowatt, Anker explained, data collocation services available in the UK vary wildly in price. “There’s a broad range, from £200 per kilowatt per month up to £600 or even £700 per month,” he explained. “There’s a clear cluster of new entrants at around the £300 [per kilowatt per month] range, while some of the existing operators are being more flexible with pricing.”

Unfortunately for buyers seeking collocation services in the capital, this price is only likely to increase. Anker estimates that London’s data centre capacity “is now about 90% occupied” and demand is still growing, he says. “There’s some very aggressive and staggering growth forecasts,” Anker explained, citing statistics from data centre consultancy BroadGroup that say demand in London will outstrip supply by 250% within two years.

One reason for this is the increasing willingness among public sector organisations to outsource data centre operations to collocation providers. “The public sector has been a big driver for data centres in the past year, taking up the slack from the corporate sector,” he explained.

Anker suggested that government IT spending policy will have a knock-on effect for all data centre buyers in future – if it drives even greater data centre outsourcing, the supply of available space will be under even greater pressure.

Energy measures

A more direct way in which the government influences data centre strategy is through legislation, specifically the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme, which is designed to limit the carbon emissions of the country’s largest polluters.

Now that the scheme has been introduced (as of April 2010), inefficient data centres can land their operators in serious trouble. Those organisations that qualify for the scheme – based on the scale of their energy consumption and the way in which it is metered – face fines of up to £50,000 or even jail time for executives if they fail to meet emission reduction targets.

At the same time, the scheme could prove lucrative for those companies that take the opportunity to improve the efficiency of their data centres, as Andrew Jones of energy efficient IT consultancy ITM Communications explained.

Qualifying organisations will be made to disclose their energy consumption, and will be ranked in a league table. “The league table will be publicly available, so there’ll be no more ‘green washing’,” said Jones.

This means that on top of the fines, businesses that fail to improve their energy efficiency may well find it harder to sell their wares, Jones warned. “Certain organisations will say that they will not allow procurement from the bottom half of the table, so there’s a lot of pressure.”


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Luckily, he added, the data centre is still ripe for energy efficiency improvements. “There are a huge number of boxes that are sitting in our data centres doing nothing,” he observed.

That is not to say that managing data centre efficiency is a new phenomenon – it is an established art with standard best practices and metrics. Chief among these metrics is power usage effectiveness (PUE), the default description of how effective a data centre is at converting raw electricity into IT functionality.

But according to Stephen Whatling, divisional director at engineering consultancy HurleyPalmerFlatt, while still useful, PUE is often misused. “PUE has become a weapon in many people’s hands,” he explained. “As a metric, it’s produced some misleading results.”

PUE is calculated by dividing the total amount of power a data centre consumes by that which is used by the IT equipment. A PUE score of around 2 for a data centre would be considered ‘average’, while a PUE of 1.5 is deemed ‘efficient’ and anything below this is difficult to achieve.

Whatling believes that this calculation is too crude, especially if it used to compare the relative efficiency of two or more data centres. A number of external factors can effect the calculation, such as the climate in which the data centre resides, and the time of day that the measurement was taken. As Whatling put it to delegates, “Everyone seems to want a snapshot number, but data centres are in constant flux. You’ve got to dig deep to find out about that number and what’s behind it.”

A more useful measure, Whatling said, would be one that tied energy consumption to the productive output of the IT systems, but this requires a standard definition for IT productivity. “An IT productivity measurement is a long way away,” he informed delegates, “and it could be contentious. PUE is the best metric there currently is.”

The virtual truth

That the cost control and energy efficiency imperatives are today inseparable was further reflected in the discussion around virtualisation at the Future of the Data Centre conference.

Tom Brand, service director at IT infrastructure consultancy GlassHouse Technologies, argued that virtualisation provides a “huge opportunity for carbon footprint reduction” by allowing organisations to ramp up their server utilisation rates, cutting hardware requirements and subsequently energy bills. This “massive consolidation” brings with it “billions of dollars of cost reduction, and virtualisation is the ‘killer app’ for enabling this”, he said.

Nick Miller, EMEA CTO at outsourcing provider ACS ITO, agreed with Brand’s assessment that virtualisation has the potential to reel in power consumption in data centre racks, while also adding his own contribution to the day’s overarching debate. “Some 90% of the energy used to supply these servers is going to waste,” Miller said. “There’s a lot to be had from virtualisation.”

There are, he added, other opportunities for improving the energy efficiency of data centres, including raising the atmospheric temperature, thereby reducing the need to power cooling systems. “Manufacturers are increasing the standard operating temperatures of their equipment. A lot of people are running their data centres far too cold.”

Not everyone saw virtualisation as a panacea to cost and efficiency concerns. Liam Newcombe, CTO at software vendor Romonet, told delegates that while it cannot be disputed that virtualisation improves server utilisation, it has also made it harder to divine the productive contribution of hardware resources. “[Virtualisation] has broken the tie between application and server”.

Without clear visibility into the functional dependencies of their IT infrastructure, organisations can overload their hardware, thereby damaging efficiency. “Many [data centre] operators that have virtualised have seen a growth in energy consumption,” Newcombe warned.

Newcombe echoed Tim Anker’s suggestion that when assessing outsourced data centre offerings, greater consideration must be given to power consumption as it is an ongoing cost. Indeed, he said, a focus on the short-term expenses of data centre deployments has blinded many organisations to the ongoing financial burden. “People have focused on the cost of deployment, but most of the cost is submerged,” he said.

When the extent to which businesses and public sector organisations would have to slash cost as a result of the economic downturn first became clear, there was some concern that the impetus to improve energy efficiency might fall by the wayside. But as the Future of the Data Centre conference proved, cutting cost and improving energy efficiency are not just complementary – they are the very same thing.

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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