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EXCLUSIVE: How to save energy in data centres

Author : David Strydom

15 January 2015

Nick Razey, CEO, NGD
Nick Razey, CEO, NGD

The UK data centre market is estimated to consume about 6.4 GW of power annually. This will continue to rise as the demand for data centre services become more important. How and why FMs should be freeing up energy being used by data centres.

Saving energy by more closely monitoring data centres is becoming an important business. Indeed, Next Generation Data (NGD) recently announced it’s the first data centre operator in the world to offer customers multiple rack data hall environments with contractual power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratios of just 1.0, which it describes as the most energy efficient rating on the globally recognised scale prescribed by the Green Grid.

NGD’s PUE 1.0 breakthrough will be available to customers at its NGD Europe mega data centre in South Wales from the first quarter of 2015 and will be achieved by harnessing the latest solar power and free cooling technologies combined with a 100% renewably sourced mains supply. It’s claimed that the solar power generated will offset all essential facilities energy consumed when operating customer IT racks and storage equipment to deliver zero cooling costs and enable carbon emissions savings of 505,718kg per year.

NGD, whose customers include IT services giants BT, CGI, IBM and Wipro Technologies, says its planned solar capability will make its 750,000 square feet NGD Europe facility one of the largest data centre rooftop solar deployments in the world. Following the final go ahead from NGD’s Welsh Government landlord the 4,000 photovoltaic (PV) solar panel ‘megawatt array’ installation will be capable of generating one million kilowatt hours (KWh) of free ‘green’ electricity per year – the equivalent usage of up to 240 homes.

NGD is also deploying the latest Stultz GE cooling system technology which intelligently determines the best mode of operation according to ambient conditions and data hall requirements. It allows the system to operate in free cooling mode for the majority of the year, only providing supplementary cooling in times of elevated external ambient conditions.

“We’re committed to building sustainable data centres for our customers’ mission critical IT services and therefore delighted to be the world’s first data centre operator to offer the ultimate choice in energy efficient data halls,” said Nick Razey, CEO, NGD. “We will ensure the highest level of resilience and stability is maintained thanks to our abundant 100% renewable energy direct-from-grid mains power supply and deployment of real-time energy management systems.” 

The UK data centre market is estimated to consume about 6.4 GW of power annually – roughly enough energy to power six million homes – and industry figures suggest this will continue to rise as the demand for data centre services become ever more important. To meet this higher demand, data centre operators adopt higher-density servers, resulting in increased power consumption and heat generation, which in turn requires more power for cooling.

“This unparalleled growth in data processing and the associated increase in power and cooling demand has resulted in data centres operational costs spiralling, and also capacity being stretched to its limits,” says Helen McHugh, head of sustainable technology at ebm-papst UK. “Ultimately the power draw is often the limiting factor in the scalability of a data centre; therefore increasing power efficiently can boost processing and storage capacity, as well as increasing profitability.”

McHugh points out that cooling is one of the most important considerations in a data centre, as it accounts for about half all electrical energy consumed. “It’s therefore obvious that optimising the cooling efficiency should be one of the highest priorities for data centre providers and FMs, and this is something that is of particular importance for legacy data centres.”

Legacy data centres will often have inefficient cooling equipment such as CRAC units and chillers that use AC fans, McHugh explains. In the case of CRAC units, these use mainly belt driven forward curved fans running at a fixed speed. Inefficient CRAC units can be upgraded by replacing the original AC fans with high efficiency EC backward curved fans. In addition to having a more efficient motor, EC fans offer the opportunity for simple speed control which can offer additional energy savings.

“Recent projects have shown that energy savings of about 50% can be achieved on CRAC units simply by replacing the AC fans with EC fans, while additional savings of a further 10-20% can easily be achieved by reducing the fan speed. The energy savings not only have a significant financial benefit, but also result in corresponding CO2 emissions reductions, reduced maintenance and increased capacity, with typical payback periods of less than two years normally being achieved.”

Andrew Carr, CEO of Bull UK & Ireland, an Atos company, says that rather than building and running their own data centres, businesses are increasingly asking the experts to do it for them, which is why they're seeing more organisations turn to FM companies that specialise in managing both the building and the building environment, taking in everything from electricity to cooling and from lighting to physical security.

“When it comes to the IT, though, a different approach is needed. Data centres are moving from the hardware-dominated methodology of the past towards a more software-defined approach. In making this transition they are turning to IT providers who rather than just supplying equipment, can provide them with a comprehensive end-to-end service.”

It’s a major shift and many IT staff working for these businesses are having to reskill in order to become relationship handlers rather than technology managers. It can be a challenging transition and retraining is often required, Carr says. “This new environment is changing the role of FMs also. Increasingly, they will also have to change to a more service-focused approach. After all, that’s the whole premise of delivering services through the cloud. Everybody including the FMs, has ‘skin in the game’ and everybody is accountable for ensuring the end service is delivered in the most cost-effective, efficient and highest-quality way.”

FMs will, for example, typically be responsible for ascertaining that the data centre has all the necessary security accreditations and environmental credentials. And the IT providers can help by delivering secure systems and leveraging technology as efficiently as possible in order to reduce power. “With technology increasingly commoditised, it’s becoming more difficult for businesses to differentiate between different solutions,” says Bull. “Environmental and security concerns are often two critical decision points for customers. And in delivering these benefits, the FM’s role is increasingly key.”

Huw Owen, CEO of Ark Data Centres, says that anyone who works in the industry knows that data centre ‘greening’ is a hot topic. “Exponential data growth has driven massive data centre scaling to cope with demand and the legacy of the ‘traditional’ data centre model no longer makes sense,” he says. “Squeezing big hot sweaty servers into a warehouse that’s not designed to be kept cool – or to scale effectively - is a recipe for energy inefficiency that’s both expensive and unnecessary.

Most companies tend to run a building at a power usage efficiency (PUE) of 2.5 or higher (particularly in the case of data centres that are 10-12 years old), Owen points out. But, he adds, PUE is a pretty crude industry measurement that’s often grossly misrepresented by data centre suppliers. “It’s time for the industry to move on and follow in our pioneering steps to guarantee PUE and be completely honest and transparent with it. That means including all other energy costs relating to the data centre estate in calculations; in many cases, organisations don’t include the power consumed by other aspects of their data centre such as lighting or security systems into their PUE.”

Owen says attaining a PUE of 1.25 would achieve savings of potentially about £1.1m per megawatt, per year. From an environmental perspective, that’s 6,000 tonnes of carbon you’re no longer being taxed on. “Smarter and more genuine environmental policies are also required along with innovative approaches to minimising environmental impact. For example, permeable road surfaces and spaced block-paving that facilitates the surface run-off of rainwater. Using a rainwater harvester to collect and store the run-off supply in balancing ponds and employing a reserve osmosis plant and water purification process to utilise this precious resource in cooling systems. This reduces demand on the mains water supply.”

Ultimately, operational objectives should be able to deliver a sustainable and highly efficient data centre environment that generates significant benefits for customers, including a significantly lower total cost of ownership (TCO) for customers, Owen says. Recently, a customer revealed that for half a data room with 350kW they’ve achieved a 60% saving in power costs over five years. That equates to 28,000 tonnes of carbon and a £5.56m saving for just that one small installation.

Tony O’Brien, head of enterprise solutions at Siemens Building Technologies, says the need for businesses to be competitive, productive and running at maximum efficiency relies on critical facilities such as data centres being safe, secure and resilient. Key issues for FMs looking to improve and protect their facility, he says, are fire safety and higher levels of security, guaranteed business continuity, management of energy usage and minimising the environmental impact.

“By operating fully integrated security solutions, FMs can ensure the integrity of the data, the building and its assets,” O’Brien says. “High performance technology improves the assessment, management and resolution of critical situations, the distribution of crucial data and the co-ordination of resources. In line with the need to lower costs, integrated solutions will enable improved operational performance, a safer business, improved shared services, greater efficiencies and cost reductions.”

FMs can benefit from fire detection and protection solutions that are tailored to the specific data centre environment and its fire risk profile. “Solutions that minimise risk of fire and deliver intelligent detection systems eliminate the possibility of costly and disruptive false alarms. These advanced devices are able to differentiate between false fire phenomena such as steam or fumes, and a real indicator of fire. Combined with robust and reliable extinguishing solutions, as well as personal address and voice evacuation systems, a safe environment is guaranteed.”

Then there is cooling, BMS and HVAC – a major requirement for cooling in data centres. O’Brien says: “Integrated building management and monitoring systems help maintain computer room areas within precise environmental conditions, with optimal use of free cooling ventilation and lighting, as well as alternative energy applications. Software applications can display current statistics on the data centre’s actual energy usage, CO2 reductions and water conservation.”

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