David Bond, Chairman Centiel UK

Who could have predicted how the events of 2020 would change the world?  With the benefit of hindsight we should have given more thought to the possibility of a pandemic creating massive global disruption. Planning for the future, including preparation for unexpected events, costs relatively little in terms of managing upfront resources and infrastructure and yet can pay rich dividends in the long run.

Having the correct building blocks in place, combined with an agile approach where options can be kept open, is critical to success as it’s not always possible to anticipate what’s just around the corner.  As far as datacentre design is concerned some of the key elements needed from day one are a cost effective location, local availability of skilled staff, sufficient power and excellent connectivity to the rest of the world.  The right mix of these elements are critical to allow organisations to develop and grow successfully whatever the future holds.

Looking forward, there are still many unknowns but what we do know is that the Pandemic has created a new “normal” (e.g. working from home, use of Teams & Zoom etc.) and the existing rapid rise in data use will only be accelerated as a result. One estimate from Knight Frank Datacentres suggests that, assuming all the planned schemes go-ahead, the number of datacentres in London will double in the next two years.

However, I would question why London is a good place to build a new datacentre.   Yes, the necessary infrastructure and connectivity are there but these cannot be added to ad infinitum and the cost of real estate in the capital is incredibly high.  There are plenty of other brownfield sites across the UK with enough power where land is far less expensive.

Before I joined Centiel I worked for Emerson Network Power (now Vertiv) who helped build the Facebook datacentre in Lulea. Lulea is less than 70 miles from the arctic circle so is not an obvious place to put such a large datacentre, however, it was a stroke of genius and is argued to be the most energy efficient datacentre ever built. For example, the average outside temperature in Lulea in winter is -20°C. Banks of axial fans draw in this cold, filtered air and expel the hot air generated by the vast number of servers etc. Furthermore, Lulea is powered by several hydroelectric dams which generate clean, reliable power to the datacentre. The icing on the cake is the positive effect it has had on the local community with increasing applications for courses at Lulea’s university and a significant increase in the local economy.

What Lulea shows is that datacentres can be situated anywhere providing they have the basic elements in place (space, power, skills, connectivity).  Plan to get these right for a future-proofed facility.

The one challenge with selecting a remote location is often a lack of skilled staff to work on site.  The unmanned datacentre is a nice theory but in practice, although you don’t need huge teams, you still need someone on site who is highly skilled to swap a server or physically check on equipment.  The more remote the location, the cheaper the land to build but the less attractive it is for young people with the necessary IT skills to want to work there.  Clearly, a balance needs to be struck to create the datacentre and maintain its profitability.

As briefly mentioned above, one positive phenomenon that has come from the Pandemic has been the success of remote working.  It is highly unlikely that businesses will completely return to their offices as we have seen in the past and this will have a knock on effect.  Small, single phase UPS will be needed to protect the power and internet connection for staff working from home. However, these staff will need to connect into an office based enterprise server/edge data centre, which will need a larger UPS, before the critical data is fed into the cloud.  As the proliferation of edge data centres grows, so too will the number of large and mega datacentres needed to house and process data in the cloud.  With organisations requiring less office space, is it possible that these large, now redundant buildings could be re-deployed as datacentres in the future?

As well as location (space and land), skilled human resources and the infrastructure needed to connect to the rest of the world, power is also required for successful datacentre development. And datacentres really do require significant amounts of power!

It therefore follows that as the number of datacentres grows so does the need for power.  In 2017, at the Nordic Digital Business Summit, Helsinki, Finland in his paper: Total Consumer Power Consumption Forecast, Dr. Anders S.G. Andrae from Huawei estimated that global power repartition use by datacentres will have moved from an estimated 11% in 2015 to represent 43% of use by 2025 as the best case scenario.

Although such predictions are hard to verify, there is little doubt that datacentres are power hungry beasts and their need for electricity is set to increase significantly.  Therefore, minimising energy use to control running costs and also the environmental impact of datacentres must also be a priority when it comes to design.

The good news is that in the future, we will see more efficient servers with improved processing power.  Where the National Grid is lacking, we can take advantage of renewable energy sources to help manage peak power requirements with solar panels or wind turbines.

The latest generation of UPS are now c.97% efficient which is very close to 100% “perfection”, however, the VRLA batteries used as the UPS’s energy store still require optimum temperature of around 20°C to optimise their useful life.  This means costly, energy-zapping air cooling is often required unless, as in Lulea, cold natural air can be used for cooling.  Fortunately, Li-ion batteries offer an alternative to VRLA as they can work well at higher ambient temperatures but their higher upfront cost is a disadvantage.

As well as looking at ways to reduce power consumption, having the right infrastructure in place from the outset will save costs over the long term. Infrastructure is a front end loaded cost but is the essential enabler to support growth, so what are we talking about when it comes to UPS solutions?

Modular UPS are, by far, the fastest growing sector of the UPS industry. This is because of their many advantages which include both very high availability and easy scalability. Consider this: the cost of the metal cabinets (infrastructure) to house UPS modules are just a few hundred pounds.  So, if you think need 60kW of power why put in a 60kW UPS?  What happens if you need to go up to 80kW?  With a flexible, well specified, modular UPS installation any growth in power protection requirements can be accommodated. Alternatively, you could rip out the whole system – wiring and all – and start again.  By well specified I mean installing a cabinet which can, for example, take up to five UPS modules but only initially houses two. It is very easy to add another UPS module if needed and one can even be removed, put in the boot of a car to be transported and redeployed to another site just as easily.

IT staff are already familiar with modularity in servers and memory so UPS modules to protect power is not a new concept.  This agile approach to right sizing the UPS minimises capital expenditure, running and maintenance costs.

In my experience, most legacy UPS systems are oversized.  Oversized systems cost more to purchase, install, run and ultimately more to maintain.  Therefore, it is necessary to calculate the UPS size in relation to the actual load requirement yet have the flexibility to pay-as-you-grow.   We are happy to employ diversity in designing electrical installations so why not use the same principle in IT loads as well?  By adding a scalable modular UPS into the mix a critical power installation can be both right-sized and futureproofed.  Right sizing is important to minimise energy losses and to keep total costs of ownership (TCO) as low as possible.

If 2020 has taught us anything it is that no-one really knows what the future holds.  However, adopting a flexible approach and making the right choices when it comes to the essential elements of the datacentre build will pay dividends over the long term.  Modular UPS technology and employing the appropriate infrastructure will ensure datacentres keep their options open to remain agile in an uncertain world.

Originally featured in Mission Critical Power Magazine April 2021.

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