DCN Feature: Facing The Future

As all eyes rest on Whitehall this month and the results of the long-awaited UK general election, Leo Craig, general manager at Riello UPS, considers how it could affect the data centre industry. 0083edd8-05af-438a-9248-da7137d802ba

With the general election upon us this month, we will soon have a new government in place, but what will this mean for the UK energy supply on which all data centres are reliant? At the beginning of 2014, Ofgem reported that we were nearing the point of having power cuts when demand exceeded capacity. They predicted that there would be a one in four chance of this happening in 2015/16 if no action was taken. This would reduce to a one in 12 chance if energy efficiency measures were taken.

The good news is that Ofgem’s report this year shows that this chance has reduced to one in 37 because of the impact of energy efficiency measures taken across homes and businesses. But now, what’s the future for our energy network? Depending on which political party takes control, there will most likely be changes in our energy policy in the coming years. Some parties are pushing the line for the UK to be completely reliant on renewables and closing all oil gas, oil and nuclear power generation plants whereas others see nuclear as the favoured solution to our energy demands. Whichever way the political masters turn, there is no getting away from the fact that in the future we will see more of a reliance on renewables, not least because it will be a minimum of ten years before any nuclear solution can be brought online.

The data centre industry is growing fast in the UK, thanks mainly to our increased reliance on the internet, whether shopping online, sharing photos on the latest mobile technology, or social networking on Facebook, Twitter or such like. This ever increasing use of data has to be processed and stored in ‘the cloud’ to the layman but in real terms, in servers housed in our data centres. Therefore the security of our data is very much reliant on energy and the uncertainty of the political future brings doubt to our evolving UK energy network. It is imperative that the data centres of the future prepare now for the challenges which lie ahead.

Tackling the energy challenges head on

The first challenge for data centres is dealing with potential over demand on the UK energy network – in short, planning for the worst case scenario. Resilience planning is crucial so that if power does fail, there is a reliable UPS and standby generator ready to kick in which is fit for purpose and in good working order. Many businesses feel it is too much of a risk to simulate a total power failure and only find out that the building load signature has changed when the generator cannot take the building load. It is far easier to test in a simulated scenario and this presents less risk as the power can be restored at a flick of a switch and the appropriate action taken to remedy the situation. Planning and ‘testing’ the plan is key to a resilient data centre.

The second challenge comes down to efficiency within the data centre. Whilst it is easy to update to the latest UPS with the highest efficiency and change or upgrade the cooling

system, this is not the key to an efficient data centre. Instead, getting a base line on where the energy is being used should be the starting point. This means monitoring the power used and the key temperature and humidity readings across the data centre. The ideal is to install a DCIM monitoring system that oversees the key power users supporting the data centre such as the UPS, computer room air conditioners (CRAC) and computer room air handlers (CRAH). 

This monitors the performance of the cooling system by looking at the temperature of the air entering the server racks and the return temperature to the CRACs. Simple monitoring of just these two parameters enables the data centre manager to firstly ensure that the equipment is actually performing efficiently and that the flow of cooling around the data centre is where it should be and not bypassing the server racks and returning straight to the CRACs. Implementing simple changes within the data centre environment can have the biggest impact, such as ensuring that blanking plates remain in place within the server racks to stop bypass airflow. There should also be control on cabling within data centres to ensure that there are no airflow pinch points due to legacy cables not being removed and new cabling simply put over the top. Often it is the ‘low hanging fruit’ – measures that are simple and relatively inexpensive – which can generate the greatest savings.

Proactive energy management

The final challenge is to look to the future and for the data centre to take a proactive approach to energy management. When designing a new data centre or updating an existing one, consideration must be given to the UK energy network. Smart grid technologies should be considered where the data centre works hand in hand with the National Grid to store energy wherever possible. This stored energy can then be used to support the grid at times of peak demand.

There are two main energy storage centres within a data centre estate, firstly the standby generator which can be used to export power to the grid if required or simply take the data centre off line to release the data centre power requirement to the National Grid. The good news for doing either is that the data centre can earn money from taking part within the smart grid. The UPS also stores energy within its batteries, but until now the typical Valve Regulated Lead Acid (VRLA) batteries didn’t offer the characteristics to enable large power storage and fast enough recharge times required by smart grid applications. However the availability of Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries has changed this. Li-ion batteries have a high power density and faster recharge times (typically 30 minutes) and also take up less than half the space of traditional VRLA batteries. This means that the UPS can store more than twice the energy within the same footprint of VRLA batteries. The UPS can also be part of the smart grid regime by storing sufficient energy which can be exported back to the grid whilst still leaving sufficient power available to cover a power outage allowing the generator to start. A further benefit of Li-ion is the ability to work between 0 – 40 oC unlike VRLA which have to be kept at 20 oC. This increases the efficiency of the data centre in the reduction of cooling requirements.

What a difference a year makes…

As the statistics from Ofgem clearly show, efficiency improvements can have a big impact on the UK’s energy supply in just one year. Data centres therefore have a corporate social

responsibility to become as efficient as possible, irrespective of the fact it also improves the ‘bottom line’ of the accounts. Data centres can be sure that if they don’t become more efficient, the EU or UK government – regardless of which political power is in place – will introduce robust regulation forcing them to become more efficient.