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Centres of expansion

23 April 2012
Ashley Davis, IET Fellow and non-executive director of InfinitySDC

IET Fellow Ashley Davis has strong views on the shape of the Data Centre world to come, and is helping to advise professional bodies and governments on the type of engineer required to work within it. Words and portrait by Nick Smith.

“If you think about the applications that reside on your mobile phone, they are all an IT demand. So every time we send an email, place an order with Amazon, make a search on Google, and so on, we make a demand on an IT asset.” Ashley Davis, non-executive director of InfinitySDC and a Fellow of the IET, is about to describe a narrative that will link your phone to the 21st century Data Centre (DC), a phenomenon he describes as “the modern manufacturing plant”.
He explains that the ‘IT asset’ is typically a server or mid-range platform with a high dependency on other platforms. “So when you upload your photographs to Facebook, that’s being hosted on a server that resides in a computer rack. And that rack has dependencies on cabling, fibre connectivity and so on. But more importantly, it has a high dependency on electricity. And for every watt of power that the server consumes, it will expel a watt of heat.”
That rack is supported by electrical and mechanical subsystems which when magnified to the scale of DCs being used by the likes of Google or Amazon, easily outstrip in terms of footprint a typical B&Q warehouse, with facilities easily reaching a quarter of a million square feet. “In essence, the DC is an industrial shed with a raised floor and a tremendous amount of equipment moving air at high velocity that is cooling the electronics.” In other words, your Tweet, SMS, Facebook upload or any other of a growing number of seemingly innocuous activities associated with being a ‘digital citizen’ have a substantial eco-system associated with it.
As an engineer with as MSc in Intelligent Building from Reading University, it’s this ecosystem that fascinates Davis. His company InfinitySDC is one of the UK’s largest data centre developers and operators, with 800,000 feet of DC space around the M25. He is also a member of Intellect, the UK trade association that established the Data Centre Council that advises government on issues related to the DC industry. As a Fellow of the IET he is also trying to drive focus around the data centre industry and is keen to devise a professional accreditation framework for DC professionals.
For Davis though, the emerging world of the data centre has a new set of challenges that he feels need to be recognised and formalised, so that the industry can evolved in a structured way. “The Data Centre is really dependent on three engineering disciplines,” he says. First, it is mechanical in terms of pipe work and cooling plant; second, it is electrical in terms of UPSs generators and distribution, while third, it is a technology trade in terms of the servers, networks and storage involved. And so to work in a data centre, “You really need to be able to span those three disciplines. A mechanical engineer typically is already regulated and he or she may already be a chartered engineer. Likewise, an electrical engineer can go through his or her own accreditation. But an IT guy can come from anywhere and has no real accreditation other than the strength of their CV.”

Multi-disciplinary

Throughout his career Davis has been responsible for the design, build and operation of mission critical facilities, with more than two decades in financial institutions at the forefront of highly intensive IT infrastructure facilities. And so he has seen the challenges for the data centre emerge first hand. His experience has led him to the conclusion that if you want to be a data centre professional your portfolio of skills must span all three disciplines. “So if you’re a mechanical engineer you really would like to know a bit more about the electrical trade. And vice versa. And both of those would like to know – and would be perfectly capable of understanding – what happens on the technology level.”
He goes on to say that the standard course of events when there is a DC-related failure is that “the technology guy gets the phone call because the server is dead. He then picks up the phone to the electrical engineer, who then phones the mechanical engineer.” This is why Davis believes there should be a convergence of these skills “because they’re all required in the same building at the same time. But we need a curriculum to guide people through what it is exactly they need to learn.” In other words, the ideal operators need to have a triangular relationship of accredited skills, a formal recognition for which simply doesn’t exist.
But of course these professionals already exist. Although there are no reliable or audited figures, Davis believes there are at least 30,000 DCs nationwide and, therefore, by extrapolation, hundreds of thousands worldwide. “It’s just not known how many people are employed in association with the DC industry. In the design community there are design engineers working on this, while in the build community there are large specialist construction companies with divisions associated with DCs. In terms of operating the 15-year life cycle of a centre, it’s down to the customer to ensure they have the appropriate skills to manage the facility. We just don’t know.” One thing is certain and that is the Data Centre portfolio is set to grow, driven by the demand for hosting.

Where are the Data Centres?

The data centre is the 21st century information factory, heavily reliant on energy, geographically located in places where 20th century manufacturing facilities might have been, as a result of the availability of cheap electricity. But the industry is shrouded in mystery, and one of the reasons for this is that governments are unable to identify them. According to Davis, many of the companies that rely on DCs prefer the public not to know where they are. In particular, the finance community doesn’t want anyone to know where their DCs are because they are security risks. “And so you find that for reasons of data protection the centres tend to be in very vanilla buildings, in city suburbs and probably the only clue you’d have to the presence of a DC is that there would be the profusion of generators or chiller plant nearby. If you see an innocuous, but energy intensive facility, the chances are it’s a DC. You drive past them every day: no labelling, no branding, just highly secure facilities.”
And it is this lack of visibility that has meant that the industry is not as regulated as others. “It should be a heavily regulated industry. But the recent legislation that has come forward has been predominantly related to building efficiency on the basis of energy spent and not to the professionals contracted to work within them.” A typical large-scale wholesale DC is a 10MW facility – the equivalent of 100,000 houses. So one data centre equals a small town in terms of energy. But by default DCs are not energy efficient. It costs about £15m per MW, and so you’re talking about a £150m investment in a facility that may take a corporation three years to fill the DC to capacity. “So from the moment you switch it on, it won’t be efficient until it has reached its running capacity. Then its efficiency is related to the skills required to fine tune the electrical plant, the mechanical plant and importantly run the assets inside the facility – the technology – at an optimal level. But the utilisation efficiency of these assets could be as low as 10 per cent. If you were employing 100 people and 90 of them were doing nothing, you’d wonder why you’d hired them.”

Formal recognition

As non-exec directory of InfinitySDC, Davis is also a member of Intellect, the UK trade association that established the Data Centre Council, a small representative slice of the user community including British Telecom, Cisco, Cable & Wireless and a number of DC operators. “We have been focusing for the past two years on issues associated with the industry in order to advise Government. As a fellow member of the IET, I approached the IET with the idea that one way of assisting the industry is to try to establish a career framework.”
According to consultants Gartner, the DC industry is going to be worth annually in the region of £150m by 2015. And yet there is only limited structured development for careers. Davis hopes that in consultation with the IET, Intellect can help to outline a formal recognition of employees with the ambition of reaching a programme for formal accreditation such as ICTTech, IEng and CEng.
“The data centre professional needs to have an adequate understanding of the specialist skills involved and where they converge – why should there be a separation of responsibilities for support of the data centre? Hence providing these three disciplines – electrical, mechanical, technology – with guidance and a curriculum that aids professional recognition would, in short, harmonise the industry and provide engineers with the opportunity to scale their experience horizontally versus vertically. It is with this focus that the IET and Intellect have formed a working group.”

Rapidly expanding future

But why is the data centre market exploding now? “Put simply it is the growth of social and business networking. The rise of the digital citizen means that the world is abuzz with non-stop texting and Tweeting, financial transactions and order routing. All of this is dependent on an application that has to reside on a server, which has to be connected to a network that has to reside in a building.”
Davis explains that there is one further, critical demand on the system. This is the expectation that these facilities are operational 24/7. And we all know what happens when they don’t. “Last year there were two or three very bad failures. BT Broadband went down as a result of a power failure. BlackBerry RIM went down due to what was said to be a fail over a network switch. Amazon had an outage, as did Lloyds banking.”
If you’re a bank and you go down, you’re on the front page of the Financial Times. If you’re a social networking site and you lose the ability to deliver, a whole generation globally regards it as a catastrophe. “The interesting thing is, if you read all the articles about these so-called outages, they all blame the data centre. And that is even more interesting because no one knows what the data centre is.”
Due to the intense rate at which the world has come to rely on data centres there is a clear and obvious need for regulation, starting with accreditation of the engineers that provide the service. But the rate of reliance has outpaced our general understanding of the data centre. It’s no longer enough simply to have vague figures about where they are and what they do. As Davis says, “It’s a very challenging time. The full scale of our dependence on DCs for social and business networking is only just beginning to hit us. The data centre is expected to be like a utility now. We want it there 24/7 – no ifs or buts. And it’s only going to keep on growing. And we don’t have accredited Data Centre Professionals.”

Four types of data centre

Ashley Davis says there are four types of data centre and the one you will use depends on the category of business you are in. The rule of thumb is the further away you get from the hub of financial institutions where data access and transmission is time critical down to the split second, the slower the service will be:

1) ‘Sub-millisecond’. These are typical around the big metropolis – London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and New York. The reason for this is that they are there to serve the financial markets. And so this is about being adjacent to or with the exchange, and that is how banks make money.
2) ‘Millisecond’. These are within or around big cities. These are growing in response to financial or other organisations with order routing. These are also serving pharmaceuticals “that require hosting within a geography”.
3) ‘Out of town’. This can be anywhere, providing they are ‘paired facilities’ and if they are paired they have to be within 60 miles of each other for data replication purposes. Limitations of the speed of light mean that for synchronous replication to occur there is a distance limit. “These are the big battleships. They’re the ones that you see when you drive down the M3 – Basingstoke, Camberley – or if you were outside New York, you’d see them in New Jersey. These are the 100,000 square foot and above facilities.”
4) ‘Remote’. These are anywhere in the world sited specifically to exploit low electricity costs and the ability to use ambient air-cooling, further reducing energy demand. This means that countries like Finland and Iceland are able to join the market.

Today’s data centre

The data centre is becoming the lifeblood of everything we do in the digital economy – from browsing the Internet, to streaming music and video. Most corporations depend upon the high availability of the systems and applications that reside inside the data centre. Here are some recent interesting facts that further emphasise the scale of the data centre:

• 2bn YouTube videos watched every 24hrs
• 293bn emails sent every 24hrs
• 89bn Google Searches in 2011
• 70,000 pictures uploaded to Facebook every minute
• 155m/day Tweets, compared with 55m one year ago, with 30bn Tweets per year forecast by 2014
• Data Centres consume 100 times more power than the offices they support.

Yet the data centre profession is only just emerging as a recognised necessity in the digital economy. So what is a data centre, and how do you penetrate this growing industry?
A data centre comprises mechanical, electrical and technology platforms – designed accordingly, the Data Centre represents a sophisticated array of integrated platforms that require specialist skills to design, build and operate. The data centre represents a multi-million pound investment that typically translates to around £15 million per MW of power and requires significant coordination across multiple disciplines – real estate, mechanical and electrical engineers and technology divisions.
The key issues facing the industry are numerous: primarily energy efficiency driven through appropriate focus on sustainability and skills development.

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