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The data centre landscape in 2015 and beyond

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We live in a true information age now with cloud services taking a firm precedent over traditional IT networks. Terms like big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), cyber security and cloud are frequently used when talking about the surge of information in the world. But while some of these phrases are likely to come and go – ultimately the need to have a robust infrastructure to store this data will always be there. As we look to 2015, organisations are making plans to address the explosion of enterprise data and how this will affect data centre operations.

The data centre of today needs to be flexible, agile and nimble to reflect the need for businesses to make game changing decisions quickly and with less risk. It needs to provide optimum performance at all times as system failures can prove extremely costly and inconvenient for businesses. Of course, whilst downtime is relatively rare, it is naturally accepted as a part of enterprise life and with increasing reports of power outages in the UK, is something which should be prepared for. Smart businesses get ready for these instances of downtime by having uninterruptible power supply (UPS) equipment in place. Here are some of my thoughts on key UPS trends in the context of the data centre for this year and beyond.

Modular will gain momentum in 2015

Businesses are demanding better protection than ever from their UPS as they face constraints on budgets and environmental factors. The answer to this is modular topology. This approach allows for flexibility and ease for expansion in data centres ranging in size from micro to large scale. 

According to global research body Frost & Sullivan, the market for modular UPS is expected to grow to £260m (US $400m) by 2017. Whilst only representing less than 10 per cent of the overall UPS market, it demonstrates a growing acceptance of the modular component UPS. This is driven in part by the growing development of small to medium sized data centres and their need to rapidly expand to meet the demand for cloud-type services. The 2012 Best Practice Guide for the EU Code on Data Centres also recommends a modular approach to data centre design.

Modular vs standalone UPS

Most manufacturers offer both standalone and modular component UPS systems which can be used to implement the ‘modular’ approach as recommended by the above best practice guide. The type of UPS adopted is dependent on where in the power distribution chain the UPS installation is to be made (ie. Power plant room or data centre floor) and the floor space in the data centre itself. 

Standalone UPS may be floor standing or rack mounted and can generally be connected in a parallel/redundant N + X architecture to create systems up to 6 MVA. The typical individual on-line UPS ranges in size from 800kVA to as low as 1kVA and is supplied as a single cabinet. Modular component UPS systems comprise of standard UPS modules ranging from 10-50 kVA. Multiple modules can be connected in parallel within a single system cabinet. This achieves a higher kVA output and/or level of N + X redundancy.

Why modular will make waves this year

Modular ultimately offers the maximum in availability, scalability, reliability and serviceability whilst also offering high efficiency, low cost of ownership and a high power density as space is always a premium in the modern datacentre.

Key highlights include:

Floor space flexibility: Floor space within a datacentre is often limited and required for revenue generating server racks. Modular component UPS systems can be expanded vertically provided there is room within the existing cabinet for additional UPS modules or horizontally with the addition of a further UPS cabinet. 

Operating efficiency: By rightsizing the UPS to the load size, maximum operating efficiency can be achieved. This is because maximum efficiency is typically achieved when operating at 80-100 per cent of the design capacity.

Ease of use: Modular UPS systems are slightly easier to service and repair in situ because a failed UPS module can be ‘hot-swapped’. The failure or suspect module is then returned to a service centre for investigation. To return a standalone UPS system to active service may require a board swap.

Availability: In terms of resilience, both modular and standalone UPS approaches can be configured to provide similar levels of availability. Modular component UPS systems have a premium price compared to standalone UPS but when the space saved and the total cost of ownership are considered, the overall price is comparable.

Resilience is a major factor and when selecting a modular solution and close attention should be paid to any single points of failure such as a common controller as should this fail, the whole system will fail in spite of any redundant module. Due diligence is always recommended when selecting the right modular solution.

UPS will be further integrated into smart grid solutions

Greater consideration around data centre design will go some way in future proofing facilities from any changes to the aging power distribution network. But the problems the National Grid has had in meeting demand aren’t going to go away quickly. A key theme this year will continue to focus on how data centres can work more efficiently and even assist the power grid. 

By 2050, electricity demand is set to double but more than £110 bn of investment would be required to build the equivalent of 20 large power stations and upgrade the grid. With little significant increase in power generation capability planned in the next decade other than from renewables (particularly wind generated), this will impact on the stability of the National Grid with increased ‘grid-switching’ (increasing risk of micro-breaks and voltage dips). To help counteract this I think we will see more data centres taking up ‘triad’ or ‘smart’ contracts with Distribution Network Operators (DNOs). This means that when demand from the grid is high, instead of cutting power from a facility without warning, the data centre receives a request from the DNO to remove itself from the grid and use generators instead to support the data centre.

Using Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries with the UPS also presents the opportunity to use the UPS as an energy accumulator which allows the data centre to use stored power during times of peak demand. Li-ion batteries have greater cyclic properties (10,000 cycles compared to VRLA’s 500 cycles) and are 50 per cent smaller than VRLA batteries. They also have a faster rate of recharge which makes them suitable for energy storage applications. This will reduce the load on the National Grid or even export power back to the grid. Li-ion batteries now give data centres the ability to store sufficient power capacity to keep the data centre running for 30 to 60 minutes or more without having to run the generator. 

Data centres will need to prepare for pending legislation

The date for when European directives on energy management will come into force is approaching faster than we think with 2016 the year when key legislation is expected to be brought in. This will force businesses to undergo an energy audit to ensure they are doing their part to reduce power consumption. Ahead of this, the European Commission has created the ‘Code of Conduct for Energy Efficiency in a data centre’ which details voluntary measures for data centres to consider the environmental impact of their operations. Whilst this is voluntary at the moment, the measures are expected to form the basis of more stringent legislation in the future. Data centres, for example, must show they have considered the environment and measured the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of the facility – the metric to measure infrastructure energy efficiency. This tool helps to boost energy efficiency in data centre operations.

Likewise the Data Centre Alliance (DCA) has recently introduced a new certification which provides industry with a clear set of criteria designed to embrace existing codes and standards of best practice to assess the quality and resilience of a facility. Whilst businesses do not want to feel the burden of being bombarded with ‘never ending’ audits, the aim for 20-20-20 by 2020 – 20 percent reduction in consumption, 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions and 20 percent reduction in cost, still stands. Hence, it will not be long before incentives or penalties are introduced by European and UK governments to force our hand and make us change. It makes sense therefore for businesses to be prepared.

The data centre of the future

With a continued reliance on the internet and vast amounts of data out there, it is clear that there will be more demand placed on data centres. Technology is continually advancing and approaches like modular should therefore be embraced to continue to raise the bar in data centre efficiency. To this effect, this reliance on data centres mean that the UPS will continue to play a vital role in the power chain but the role will go beyond simply back up power and focus on the additional benefits to businesses. With no significant new generating capacity for the National Grid over the next ten years, businesses need to keep at the forefront of their mind how they can manage and protect the power to our data centres in the future.

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