From data centre infrastructure efficiency (DCIE), to Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), there are many considerations which ultimately impact the cost to build, operate and scale a facility, writes Darren Watkins, managing director for VIRTUS Data Centres.

While many strive to become more effective, efficient and environmentally responsible, not all operators are looking holistically at optimising their data centre footprint. Some focus on discrete initiatives rather than managing the data centre lifecycle end-to-end.

In order to achieve optimum performance, providers must embark on a journey from design and construction, through deployment to operation and optimisation, leveraging emulation, automation and analytics to ensure their needs are met every step of the way. If they don’t, they risk being stuck with large, inefficient data centres that are costly to operate and virtually impossible to upgrade.

But what constitutes success? And how do data centre providers get there?

1. Understand your objectives 

At the most basic level, it’s important to understand what is meant by ‘optimum performance’. For most, availability is a key performance indicator, since the IT loads they support are mission-critical and the impact and cost of downtime is high. Uptime and availability come hand in hand with scalability as important performance criteria, particularly for colocation providers who are expected to flex their provision alongside multiple customers’ changing requirements.

A third objective is to address reliability and security concerns. This means ensuring comprehensive security services - including DDoS mitigation, intrusion detection management, managed security monitoring, penetration testing / vulnerability assessments and compliance advice.

There are other performance metrics to consider, such as how energy efficient the data centre is, how cost effective it is in terms of CapEx, OpEx, or total cost of ownership (TCO) and how sustainable and environmentally compliant the design is.

Setting objectives isn’t only about defining what is required today. It’s important to continually review which techniques, technologies and strategies are performing as expected, and which need to be improved. ‘What’s next’ could mean the next location or next build, and when it comes to location, there is plenty of movement in the market.

Recent reports show that despite the continued growth in the key five FLAP+D country locations (Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Paris and Dublin) - which account for 70% of data centre space - other areas (such as Zurich / Geneva, Warsaw and Dublin) stand out as hot spots for future investments.

2. Design and construction 

The rising cost to construct and operate a data centre calls for better approaches to design. An holistic design approach provides significant benefits to data centre managers, facilities, customers and the business as a whole.

A central aspect of successful holistic design involves carefully considering all of the variables with an eye on OpEx over the life of the data centre, not just the initial CapEx investment to build the facility. Holistic design must also allow for business growth and evolving technology, incorporating systems and innovations that ensure an agile, scalable and highly robust data centre operation that supports both current and future needs.

During construction, there is plenty to consider including materials sourced and used, time to market and cost. It is important to ensure sustainability, and it’s here where the BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) standards are extremely relevant.

These standards examine the green credentials of commercial buildings, verifying their performance and comparing them against sustainability benchmarks. As well as the commitment to meeting BREEAM specifications, many providers also employ a modular build methodology to deploy capacity as and when required. This drives up utilisation, and maximises efficiency (both from an operational and cost perspective).

3. Power, cooling and management

Power and cooling account for much of the operating costs of a data centre, and as such they are a crucial consideration. When it comes to cooling, providers use a variety of innovative techniques including indirect evaporative air.

This works by drawing air from two sources: firstly, outside air is drawn through the louvers on the side of the data centre and into the cooling unit; secondly, the hotter air from within the data hall is contained from the hot aisle of the IT equipment and enters the cooling unit.

The temperature of the cooler outside air is used to cool the hotter air from the data hall via a heat exchanger before being returned into the data hall as cool supply air. Critically the air flow never mixes inside the cooling unit, ensuring the environment inside the data hall is kept free of outside contaminants.

In terms of power requirements, the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) will be determined by several factors including the criticality of the systems under load, the quality of the existing power supply and of course, the cost. When it comes to energy use, renewable energy is on the rise in data centres. Supplies from renewable power, including wind, solar and hydro are now likely to surpass supplies of gas, oil and coal-fired stations used by UK data centre providers.

Late 2019 saw renewables surpass fossil fuels as the largest generation source of UK energy for the first time and falling prices through technological improvement and scale means that it’s now more affordable than ever to harness and use these renewable energy sources.

Indeed, renewable energy projects are an area of continued success for the industry and it’s heartening to see companies adopting renewable energy in new and innovative ways. Many providers, are committed to using 100% renewable energy sources - helping them to meet environmental goals while also providing cost savings and increasing reliability.

Customers, too, are focussed on sustainability goals; 62% of Oracle’s data centre power is certified as renewable; Google has been using 100% renewable energy since 2017; AWS has committed to be using 80% renewable energy by 2024, 100% by 2030 (potentially as early as 2025) and to be net zero carbon by 2040; Microsoft has been carbon neutral since 2012 and is committed to being carbon negative by 2030 and to remove all historical carbon generated since the company started in 1970’s, by 2050.

Underpinning all of the efforts to optimise the efficiency of a data centre, is the Data Centre Infrastructure Management (DCIM) system, or more recently, next-generation DCIM systems that offer increased visibility, with remote monitoring and management capabilities via Artificial Intelligence (AI).

4. Invest in your people - skills for today and tomorrow

For many, the data centre industry is largely invisible. People often don’t realise that when systems and applications are running in the cloud, there’s a robust physical infrastructure that makes it all possible. Indeed, although there’s plenty of talk about unstaffed data centres which rely entirely on automation and robotics, we are a long way from not needing human intervention. And this means that skills are still an important consideration for data centre providers.

However, independent research commissioned by Future Facilities found that 40% of organisations who suffered outages in their data centre did so because of human error. And whether they focus on maintaining enterprise data centres or monitoring colocation facilities, data centre managers have challenging jobs.

They are responsible for the day-to-day operations and activities as well as continuous monitoring and management of their data centre sites and equipment. Tasks include anything from predictive maintenance and firmware updates, to addressing network issues and investigating unexpected downtime events with root cause analysis.

What skills should providers look for in their staff? It perhaps goes without saying that technical skills are crucial - and these requirements are continually evolving. In the past, having a solid background in networking or hardware was sufficient to be a successful candidate in data centre operations, but the shift to cloud computing has meant that a new set of skills are required or desired - particularly around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data.

As well as technical skills, soft skills like collaboration, teamwork and leadership are all critical within the operational team. Clear communication skills as important to foster close working relationships within data centre teams and need to be coupled with clearly defined areas of responsibility between the disparate teams involved in operational reliability and consistent service delivery. All of this contributes to the smooth running of a facility, and the ability to effectively meet the needs of customers.

Data centres have become one of the most crucial pieces of business infrastructure in the modern world. They are responsible for storing and processing the vast amounts of information needed to run the digital economy - if they don’t work, businesses won’t be able to operate.

Think holistically

However, demand comes with cost and sustainability pressures, so time and investment must be spent on research and development of every aspect of data centre solutions - from cooling systems to energy efficiency, to security and monitoring - constantly striving to improve performance and efficiency. Forward-looking data centre providers will work with supply partners and customers to innovate, enhance product development and ensure that they are providing operation excellence to all their customers.