Case study

University of Aberdeen - North East of Scotland Shared Data Centre

Jim Mortleman

Before the University of Aberdeen (UoA) joined forces with fellow institutions in the region to transform its inefficient, decades-old datacentre into a state-of-the-art shared services facility, it could hardly have imagined that, in three years, it would be held up as an exemplar of public-sector excellence and green efficiency.

“When I joined three years ago and took my first look at the datacentre, I almost quit there and then,” says UoA’s datacentre and operations manager Peter Esson. “It hadn’t been touched for over 20 years and we had no control over the air conditioning apart from on or off.”

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With budgets under pressure, UoA couldn’t make the necessary improvements alone, so it teamed up with sister institution Robert Gordon University (RGU), which faced a similar need to upgrade facilities.

“RGU had sufficient budget but insufficient space. We had the space but not enough budget. It was the perfect marriage,” says Esson.

North East Scotland College came on board, too, and the North East of Scotland Shared Data Centre (NESSDC) was born. “We all have strong drivers in terms of cost efficiency, shared services and the green agenda. This ticked all three boxes,” says Esson.

As this year’s winning public-sector project in Computer Weekly’s European Datacentre Awards, NESSDC wowed judges with its impressive transformation and rigorous project management. 

Cost and energy benefits

Since the completion of the £1.5m shared services initiative a year ago, the institutions have already achieved combined annual savings of £232,000, reduced their carbon footprint by 1,122 tonnes and achieved an annual power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.1, more than half the previous figure.

The institutions worked together closely for around a year to put together an invitation to tender that met all their requirements. “We wanted innovative proposals, so we said we‘d consider anything that met our criteria to reduce power consumption and become more green. Had we gone to market with a more traditional datacentre proposal, we wouldn’t have achieved the energy efficiency we have today,” says Esson.

The institutions selected supplier Workspace Technology for the project, which proposed an innovative direct evaporative cooling system that uses far less energy than traditional techniques. Workspace also had experience of conducting major upgrades with systems in situ. “We have around 20,000 users who rely on our systems, so it was vital to minimise downtime,” says Esson.

Computer Weekly European User Awards Winners

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Among other tasks, the project involved relocating 400 servers, moving and rewiring 100 live network components and two full Janet racks, replacing the flooring and ceiling, major external construction, installing a new generator, transformer, switchboard and cabinets, plus the new cooling system.

Unplanned outages over the 10-month project totalled less than 40 minutes. UoA’s head of service management Brian Henderson says this figure was largely down to a combination of good planning and great working relationships among the various parties, including the partner institutions, contractors and the university’s IT and estates management departments.

“We put a lot into the governance of the project and made sure everybody was involved at all stages,” Henderson says.

Stressful moments

As with any project, though, there were some stressful moments. Esson recalls: “One of the major challenges was when we had to switch off air conditioning for about three months last year and rely on external air to cool the system. Fortunately, we had a very cold winter here last year – even for Aberdeen – so the system kept suitably cool.”

Another hairy moment came when they replaced the generator. “We’d estimated the job would take 20 minutes and we had capacity on the UPS to keep the power on for 40 minutes. But the contractors hit a snag, and once they’d started the replacement it was impossible to back out. We came within 15 seconds of losing power completely. It was like a Bond movie,” says Esson.

The transformed datacentre has now been in place a year. As well as reducing costs and energy consumption, there have been other compelling benefits. “For one thing, it’s given our IT staff a new sense of pride,” says Esson. “The cabling is still as neat and tidy as it was a year ago.”

Henderson says the datacentre is now “rock solid”, which has given the institutions more confidence about hosting their own systems. “For example, we’ve just decided not to outsource the hosting of an ERP system we’re developing, which probably wouldn’t have been the case had we still been using the old datacentre,” says Henderson.

Esson adds: “The university also has a number of spin-off companies that are now actively putting their equipment into our datacentre rather than housing it elsewhere.”

The institutions’ great working relationships, and the unqualified success of the project, has also encouraged them to push ahead with the creation of a second, smaller shared datacentre at RGU. “They’re leading that one, and we’re hoping to award the contract next month,” says Esson.


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