Data centres: where’s the next wave of innovation?


In the future, data centres may be powered by nuclear energy or even human waste. Sound too far-fetched? Think again… The sector is exploring innovative approaches to onsite generation and anything is possible. Louise Frampton reports…


PUE has gone as far as it can but energy usage and power generation will become the focus for innovation in data centres, says Phil Collerton, managing director of the Uptime Institute in Europe, Middle East and Africa. Highlighting some the key trends in the sector, Collerton reveals that energy efficiency and downtime remain high on the agenda but data centres are also starting to ‘think outside the box’ in terms of onsite power generation. Could we see nuclear powered data centres in the future? Collerton thinks it is a possibility.

There has been a rise in onsite power generation, which has included gas-burning generators and in some markets, such as the Nordics, data centres are now being built in close proximity to hydro-power sources.

In the US, Google’s data centre in Oregon is using hydro from a local dam; Thor in Iceland is using geothermal energy to power its servers and other equipment, while a variety of pioneering approaches are now being explored – including nuclear. In 2015, plans were announced to build what could be Russia’s largest data centre right on top of the Kalinin nuclear power plant.

Power innovation

“I recently visited a site next to a sewage waste disposal facility where they are looking at using this as a source to generate power…Power is where the next wave of innovation is going to come from,” says Collerton.

The Uptime Institute’s recent survey of over 1,000 data centre professionals found that 21% have installed onsite primary power generation (renewable or natural gas), while a further 22% are considering it. However, interest in onsite power generation varies according to region: installations in Europe account for 13%, compared to 21% in the US and Canada, 24% in Africa and the Middle East, and 33% in Russia and CIS.

Collerton explains that sustainability and cost savings are some of the key drivers, behind increasing interest in onsite power innovation, but there is also a desire to be perceived as “leading edge”. In addition, we are also going to see a lot more power going back into the grid.

He points out that, in Switzerland, data centres are obliged to connect their backup generators to the grid and there are benefits in terms of energy taxation. However, there is still reticence to participate in demand-side response schemes in other locations, such as the UK, which needs to be overcome.

“The main reason for this reticence is possibly control; data centres worry what will happen if they suddenly need the spare capacity…there are some considerations but I think it will happen,” says Collerton.

Pressure from peers and customers will ultimately drive this forward, he believes: “Once one or two of the big colocation data centres start to get on board, others will follow,” he predicts. There is a need to educate and encourage end users to ask searching questions, according to Collerton. Customers are increasingly asking data centres about their green credentials and energy policy, and he believes that having a role in supporting the grid will become a part of this agenda in the future.

Five years ago, people were talking about high density and super high density rack. According to the Uptime Institute, this trend has not materialised – because of virtualisation, there hasn’t been a need to build these ‘super high power racks’ to meet demand. This has had an onward impact on the power requirements of the data centre infrastructure Nevertheless, there is a growing imperative to provide good stewardship of corporate and environmental resources. Uptime Institute recently launched an ‘efficient IT programme’, to provide a holistic approach to eliminating waste and reducing resource consumption.

As part of this, it recently visited LinkedIn, in the US, to look at how they are using energy, how many redundant servers they are operating, whether they have an accurate picture of all their assets within their facility, how much they can save by implementing efficiency measures, as well as how they can reduce or use heat. For adopters of efficient IT, Uptime Institute’s experts have identified cost savings between 3x-200x the cost of the assessment. Collerton points out that IT teams are “rarely on the hook” for the actual energy costs within an organisation. PUE has been an important initiative, driven by the Green Grid, which has changed the way people upgrade data centres. People are much more aware of how they run their units to save energy, but it will be difficult for data centres to lower their PUE any further.

“We need to look at how to reduce the IT load. It is time to go back to the IT companies and say: ‘You need to make your servers more efficient and your applications run more efficiently.’ It won’t change the PUE number but it will get the overall usage down.

“We may see some further efficiency in terms of power generation and use, on the UPS side, but the biggest opportunity is in the IT area and for organisations to looks at whether there is a need to use all their servers,” continues Collerton. He reveals that, following a review, AOL turned off 10,000 servers saving around $10m.

“Enterprises need to looks at their assets – frequently, organisations do not have up-to-date information on what these are and what they do. There is a lot of waste,” says Collerton. “In colocation data centres, people are billed for the energy they use – it is different for the enterprise where the IT team doesn’t necessarily see an energy bill.

“With colocation, you pay for everything you use – by nature it is more efficient. But there is still an opportunity, to go back in, once the installation has been running for a few years, and identify whether all the assets are being used.”

In the future, Collerton predicts that there will be continued developments in onsite power generation and data centres will look to “do things cheaper and more innovatively”. At the same time, there will be an increasing focus on energy efficiency.


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