Category Archives: data centre

Back To The Future

At a recent data centre cooling seminar the discussion was all about where the industry would go next when current air-cooling technologies and techniques exhausted all the efficiency gains over today’s standard DX units.  The consensus seemed to be that liquid cooling, particularly liquid immersion cooling would inevitably reign supreme as it has two major advantages over other cooling techniques:

  1. Certain liquids can be up to 4000-times more effective at removing high heat loads than air
  2. Liquid delivered to the server submerged in it, can be as hot as the maximum operating temperatures allow, reducing the cost of cooling (sometimes eliminating it altogether), and, in addition, providing a good heat source that can be used with thermocouples or other engineering solutions to generate electricity (see: http://phys.org/news/2013-05-green-conversion-electricity.html)

So who’s doing this?  Well, it appears that this market is beginning to expand quite rapidly, as higher performance computing (HPC) becomes more ubiquitous in industry.  Data Center Knowledge report (http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2013/07/01/the-immersion-data-center/) that CGG have just installed a futuristic-looking data centre in Houston, Texas, that wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi movie.  Computer circuits are immersed in mineral oil ‘baths’ making the data centre eerily quiet.   A small British start-up, Iceotope (http://www.iceotope.com/), have been winning awards for their innovative ‘data centre in a rack’ design that is now beginning to gain traction in HPC environments.

If you think you’ve seen this all before, well you’re right, Cray were putting their supercomputers into liquid in the 1980′s and IBM have also been doing it for decades.  It largely fell out of favour as data centre managers became risk-averse to water in their data centres.  Today’s technologies are highly proven in terms of prevention of leakage and I’ve yet to hear of anyone who has experienced one, though I’m sure there are some examples out there.

Something to think about anyway when you design your next data centre…where will you put the pipes, and how will you re-use the heat?

Why the Cloud isn’t Green

I often hear the opinion presented as fact: “shift everything to the Cloud because that is the most efficient space”.  The arguments usually consist of the following reasons:

  1. The bigger the data centre the more efficient it can be in utilising cooling and power infrastructure
  2. The bigger the data centre the better bargaining power with the electricity companies, because they love data centre loads which are nice and stable
  3. Average utilisation rates for individual servers are so low (about 10-15% – even with virtualisation), that Cloud could help to boost that by sharing loads with multiple clients

The problem with all these arguments is that they assume that everyone is at the same starting point.  We are currently undertaking a project (see previous post) to measure and report on individual service costs.   This project should enlighten us as to whether we are right to host our own services or whether we would be better off hosting them elsewhere, in the cloud.  What we won’t be doing is making any assumptions about the business case for the cloud and, in my opinion, neither should you.

Other arguments against cloud efficiency are numerous, but here is my main one:

“Cloud” data centres, however you define them, are not necessarily as efficient as a corporate data centre.  In fact, one could argue that they are much less efficient than a corporate data centre and that Facebook, Google and Microsoft, etc are examples of “Corporate” data centres and not “Cloud” data centres, since their data centres exist to promote their business models (e.g. search, email and document sharing).

In my opinion, the true cloud offerings these companies also promote should be taken separately.  Cloud computing data centres must have, by definition, capacity to grow and shrink as demand requires – this means that their utilisation will vary and their efficiency (not measurable by PUE alone) will also vary but will necessarily be poor more often than not – unless they consistently over-subscribe their capacity and prioritise certain customers over others…

Consider the analogy that is often used to describe cloud computing – an “electricity grid”.  When one plugs into a socket, more often than not electricity is supplied to power whichever device is connected.  Within limits we can power all the devices in our home from the one supply.  This is great for us but a nightmare for power station operators, who manage this daily headache consistently round the clock.  Skilled operators watch TV in order to guess when the kettle may be switched on and so try and pre-empt a massive surge in demand as households around the country reach for the coffee tin or teacup.  Do you know of any cloud providers that do this yet?

No doubt, when DCIM becomes intelligent enough and fully integrated into the data centre, with robust, mature processes to make best use of it, then the efficient management of infrastructure along with demand may become a reality.  Until then, cloud is not the “green” panacea that everyone thinks it is – far from it.

I believe that CTOs and CFOs need to demand better use of power in their corporate data centres.  Many data centre managers are waking up to this fact and in Europe, while still in its infancy, the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres is a welcome step in the right direction to assist and encourage this activity.

JISC funding won for carbon measurement of services

The University of Hertfordshire has been awarded £15,000 JISC funding for its proposal, ‘Carbon Accounting and Reporting Baselines for Services’ (CARBS). The aim of CARBS is to enable more accurate measurement of power usage within systems and across hardware domains.

Steve Bowes-Phipps, Data Centres Manager explains: ‘At the University many business systems share hardware and software to ensure we make best use of the computer resources we buy. Through the CARBS project we hope to be able to identify and monitor the individual power usage of a single service such as the Finance System.’

The year-long project that began in May 2012, will involve expertise across Information Hertfordshire and other parts of the University. Knowledge and learning gained from CARBS will be shared with the HE/FE sector.

To view the blog for this project, please visit http://blogs.herts.ac.uk/carbs/

University of Hertfordshire wins award for sustainability excellence

7 November 2011: The University of Hertfordshire has won a prestigious Green Gown Award 2011 for its pioneering data centre refurbishment project. This outstanding achievement was announced on 3 November at the national awards ceremony held at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London.

Run by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), the Green Gown Awards (GGA) recognise exceptional environmental initiatives being undertaken by universities, colleges and the learning and skills sector across the UK. With 240 applications this year, a rise of 25% from 2010, GGA are firmly established as prestigious recognition of sustainability excellence in the further and higher education sectors.

The GGA covers 13 awards categories and the University has won the coveted Green ICT category. This recognises the growing environmental importance of ICT within the sector; it encompasses a variety of actions that help minimise energy consumption, carbon emissions, waste generation and other environmental impacts associated with ICT use.

After months of scrutiny the judges said the UH entry gave “Impressive examples of best-practice features which could easily be adapted by others.” At the Awards Ceremony a delighted Steve Bowes-Phipps, UH Data Centre Manager, was presented with the impressive GGA trophy which will be proudly displayed in the College Lane Learning Resources Centre.

Steve said: “Once again, the Data Centre Refurbishment project has been recognised as a beacon of good practice both in the industry and in the HE/FE sector.” He praised his project team colleagues from across the University saying the award was fully deserved: “This has been an important 3-year development for the University which has delivered not only a world-class green data centre but also an operationally efficient one.”

Visit the Green Gown Awards website

More on Data Centre Best Practices II

Regular readers of this blog will know that while we have a sector-leading green and efficient data centre on one of our campuses, the other data centre is somewhat backward in that regard and I’ve spent a lot of effort trying out various ways of improving its efficiency. I’ve resorted to some fancy new type of floor tile and put grommets under the racks, blocking the holes that the cables poke through to help sustain static pressure in the floor plenum.

We’ve been making these changes blindly though as we had no meters in order to measure power usage and calculating the PUE is next to impossible as the building meters are not specific enough.

The good news is that we are finally starting to make some progress! Last Friday, we had power meters installed. We needed four: (1) Main Facility Supply, (2) PDB A, (3) PDB B and (4) Utility Board. Meter 4 captures the usage of the lighting, but also an external comms room that takes its power from our UPS – a legacy piece of infrastructure that could have been architected differently if I had been there when it was designed.

Unfortunately I don’t have a network connection Meter 1 as yet, but I do have the other three meters connected up and recording. The meters we are using are the same we’ve used elsewhere: Cube IP/400s. Does anyone know a way of capturing data from these devices automatically without manual cut & paste? If you do, please let me know. They store about 2.5 months of raw data and a year of totals for trending purposes. They can also calculate cost in monetary terms as well as carbon.

Now we can calculate our PUE and really know how our efficiency improvements are making an impact…more to follow…

Data Centre Shared Services

The University Sector has been trying for some time now to investigate cost-effective ways of sharing ICT provision and services across institutions.  Most of these attempts have failed due to intransigence from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), who wish to impose a double-VAT burden on institutions wishing to avail themselves of these services, where no VAT burden may have been payable originally.  Consider the example of a shared service data centre between two universities:

  • Currently both universities separately and routinely incur a liability for VAT on the purchase of services, subject to a partial exemption calculation.
  • If shared services are provided by a third party in the case of a separate legal entity or one university providing the services to the other) there is a potential for an additional VAT cost to be created, since the provider (if a university) would only be able to recover input tax in line with its partial exemption method and would need to seek to charge the other university on the irrecoverable VAT as part of the recharge.
  • As this would be a taxable supply VAT would be charged on the total recharged amount, including the irrecoverable VAT.
  • If the organisation set up to deliver the shared service employed the systems administrators who have transferred across from the institution(s) no longer requiring their services in-house, then the VAT burden has gone from zero to the double-VAT described above.

Not being an Accountant, I can’t tell you what this additional levy would mount up to, but I can assure you, that on a VAT rate of 20%, this could prove uneconomic and detrimental to the business case for a shared service initiative.  Is it any wonder that no university has done this yet!

Fortunately, a ray of light has appeared in the form of the most recent White Paper issued June 2011 by the UK Coalition Government (http://bit.ly/oBPsZE).  The White Paper has recommended reviewing the VAT burden on shared services in particular and HMRC are asking for feedback on the proposal in their review published here: http://bit.ly/paBpI8

This may be the chance to influence taxation policy that we have been waiting for and then maybe the creation of a “U-Cloud” for universities will come a step closer to reality.