Data centres are utility-hungry installations that require always-on supplies of power and cooling. This means electricity — possibly as much as 2% of the world’s energy – and often, it means water.
As our demand for data, and the infrastructure in which to store it, skyrockets, the data centre industry has demonstrated remarkable ability to improve energy efficiency as it scales.
While this technology is currently developed outside South Africa’s borders, threats to our utilities — first load shedding and now the drought in Cape Town — has prompted fresh thinking when local data centres are built and extended.
The fact is that data centres cannot be allowed to go dark — not for lack of electricity or water. The effects of a total loss of data on commercial, financial and government services would be catastrophic.
Internet Solutions’ Bree Street data centre, online since 2007, is an example of legacy infrastructure that was designed with water chillers when the resource was plentiful.
After an intensive study by its coastal data centre operations teams, the company is now replacing these with a closed loop system of air-cooled chillers to reduce water consumption by about 60 percent, while running the data centre slightly warmer than usual to further save water.
Sameer Cassim, R&D systems architect at Internet Solutions, says that environmental necessity and shifting client demand are driving the design of data centres built for change and flexibility.
“This includes power and cooling systems that are more agile and resilient,” he says.
Prefabricated for the future
Cassim believes that modular data centre builds, assembled using several prefabricated units, are the way of the future. The first such installation in the Internet Solutions portfolio comes online in Rosebank, Johannesburg, later this year.
Modular design future-proofs investment in the facility – additional modules can scale density up or down, decrease racks or increase cooling to offer clients a flexible data centre service that remains at the forefront of industry standards and changing business requirements.
“Prefabricated data centres are rapidly deployed, allowing operators to scope and redesign each section based on current power, cooling, security and network requirements or availability, says Cassim.
Modern data centre management
Smart monitoring of the data centre environment means intelligent switching between systems for the most favourable conditions in the data centre, and more utility savings.
“Modern software tools enable intelligence from initial modelling, through ongoing monitoring and management, to orchestrated, automatic response to incidents and failures to avoid outages,” says Cassim.
“Like many other aspects of IT, power and cooling management will increasingly become a software-defined activity.”
Intuitive transfer between cooling systems, for example, results in water-dependent cooling used only when necessary, before its load is passed to air cooling systems.
Cassim says that software-defined power management allows data centre operators to virtualise the resource and share it at different instances, based on demand, with various consumers. Depending on activity in the data centre and relevant SLAs, operators can reduce both Capex and Opex spend by ensuring that power is delivered to equipment at the right time and scale, without any losses or waste.
Energy conservation and renewables
The 2016 Cisco Global Cloud Index maintains that annual global data centre IP traffic will reach 15.3 zettabytes or ZB (1.3 ZB per month) by the end of 2020, up from 4.7 ZB per year (390 exabytes or EB per month) in 2015. Further, the data stored in data centres globally will quintuple by 2020 to reach 915 EB by 2020.
It is safe to assume that the utility implications, including carbon footprint, of various data centre technologies will become increasingly relevant in parallel. Again, this is particularly true in South Africa.
A recent study conducted by the US Department of Energy in collaboration with researchers from Stanford University, Northwestern University, and Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that despite demand for data centre capacity in the US growing tremendously in the last five years, total data centre energy consumption grew only slightly.
One of many successful initiatives undertaken by data centre technologists is the Open Compute Platform, which uses a decentralised Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) to improve energy efficiency by removing the power supply from the server.
Another is an Australian indirect evaporative air cooling technology that is inspired by the human body’s own cooling mechanism. Internet Solutions is currently looking at rolling out a ‘proof of concept’ of this system in one of its smaller data centres in Johannesburg.
Alternative energy sources are also under constant study although so far, alternatives such as solar, hydro, geothermal and fuel cell technology are not openly received by data centre operators as the power supply is insufficiently consistent and reliable for uptime.
“We’re seeing a new trend towards installing ‘microgrids’ into data centres which split power sources for different activities,” says Cassim.
This allows carefully limited use of renewable resources, with the source selector equipped to intelligently programme the supply based on minimal demand.
“Cape Town’s drought provided a very immediate reason to examine how we could adapt systems at our Bree Street location,” says Cassim. “Given shifting weather patterns around the world, it’s not surprising that the international trend is towards reducing reliance on utility resources altogether.”