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Modular data centres are greener

Nov 23rd, 2015, In Data centre, By Frank Brand – Associate Director,

Amsterdam can rightly claim to be one of the founding cities present at the birth of what is now called the ‘Data Centre Industry’ – the others in Europe being London, Frankfurt and Paris. The city continues to be a focus of attention for colocation and connectivity within the Netherlands and across the continent.

However, it is at the other end of the country in the municipality of Sittard-Geleen, where the most recent innovation in data centres can be found. Last month (Friday April 10th to be exact) saw the ground-breaking ceremony for what will become arguably the most energy efficient Tier III facility in the Netherlands.

The data centre is being built by ICTroom for the Belgian cloud services provider Cegeka and will initially provide 750kW of IT power and a design PUE of 1.14. It will integrate solar power to reduce its carbon footprint and it will make use of GEA’s indirect Air2Air cooling system which helps to reduce the cooling system's energy consumption by up to a factor of seven compared to classic cooling methods.

As with any technology, time tends to bring improvements and the data centre environment is no exception. Equipment is better designed: UPS systems running closer and closer to the theoretical maximum efficiency, air handling units which don’t leak air and generators with superior fuel economy. It is no wonder that today’s data centre has better green credentials than those built ten years ago.

There are however, four topics that can have a massive bearing on the carbon and resource footprint of a data centre and these are sometimes overlooked – namely i) the use of efficient IT systems; ii) the use of DCIM to maximise efficiency; iii) operational excellence and iv) modularity. As we build out the new data centre in Sittard-Geleen together with our customer Cegeka, we are endeavouring to address each of these up front.

With a long heritage as a systems integrator, Cegeka are well placed to address the first of these issues – that of the use of efficient IT equipment. Cegeka is not a small business. It has a turnover of over 240 million euros and is growing at around 12%. It employs more than 3,200 employees and already has data centres in Hasselt (Belgium), Leuven (Belgium), Veenendaal (the Netherlands) and Poland.

Cegeka knows that whilst the data centre may be super efficient, if, as is often the case, servers are running using only 10% of their capacity and still demand 70% of maximum power whilst idling, the total power used (and wasted) will eclipse any and all savings from efficient cooling. By owning the full stack from application to the rack and employing advanced virtualisation and SDN, Cegeka will be able to turn almost all of the 750kW supplied to the racks into productive work inside the servers.

Hand-in-hand with efficient IT equipment is the ability to control, in real time, the DC resources being used to support it. The ‘M’ in DCIM is most often thought of as ‘Monitoring’ rather than ‘Management’, but at Cegeka’s new facility, sophisticated management platforms will be used to ensure that not only is the infrastructure under 24/7 supervision, but that power and cooling can be adjusted dynamically to match the demands being placed upon it.

The third of the often-overlooked areas relates to the operation of the data centre. Good green credentials require both technical knowledge and an appropriate management culture. Physical configurations that (for example) optimise airflow are a pre-requisite to good economics, but even with the best DCIM systems in existence, constant vigilance from well-trained staff is needed to crack down on wasteful habits.

The fourth topic though, modularity, is probably the elephant-in-the-room when it comes to minimising the overall impact a data centre has on the resources in the environment. Modularity (whether pre-fab or container or other) is all about providing capacity quickly at the time when it is needed.

We should probably consider modularity in the context of the ‘urban’ data centre versus the ‘frozen wasteland’ data centre. There is a perception that all compute workloads are going to end up in the vast mega centres which are popping up in countries with endless geothermic power and which never get hotter than 10°c.

Even where data protection concerns require these centres to be housed in more southerly climes, the scale of a mega centre can undoubtedly create efficiencies relative to the amount of compute power being planned for. But (and it is a big but) even if one believes that those mega centres will all be used at their optimal capacity, it is just not realistic to assume that all workloads will migrate to these large ‘public’ cloud facilities. 451 research recently presented findings that 73% of workloads will remain on-premise or in private hosted environments over the next two years. It turns out that location is important. Cegeka’s new data centre is next to the Belgium and German borders and so in addition to pan-European public cloud offerings, it is planning to serve ‘local’ Dutch, Belgian and German private cloud customers who prefer to have their data and systems close by than on the other side of the continent.

We therefore come to the role of the medium-sized data centre (1-5MW) as a private cloud factory in the cloud-services supply chain. Without modularity the economics of providing such facilities would, in any case, be challenging up against public cloud and colocation. Modularity provides the ability to flex investment according to demand, and once combined with enlightened commercial and operational support arrangements can deliver an owned and branded facility ‘as-a-service’.

More generally, the green credentials of modularity have not been given their due recognition. Firstly, the whole concept of building to meet demand means that excess resources are not deployed. Secondly, demand changes over time so building-to-order means that infrastructure is not deployed and then left fallow. Thirdly, the whole concept of re-use and recycling which is commonplace in our day-to-day life, can actually be applied to the modular data centre. Components can be deployed when and where needed. Then when (and if) they are no longer needed, they can be removed and re-used elsewhere.

So modularity has moved on from providing a predictable form factor and a guaranteed performance level. It now delivers both scalability and flexibility and these are critical to being able to match supply and demand. Of course – as with any just-in-time supply chain – it is critical to engage suppliers who can commit to strict delivery timescales with a ‘first-time-right’ philosophy and can become the trusted partner in managing those resources.

Ultimately, the best that the data centre industry can do to ensure that the world’s resources are not being squandered is to deliver data centre capacity exactly when and where it is needed. No more, no less.

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