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Case study: Future Facilities trials VR to pinpoint datacentre performance problems

Datacentre performance simulation software provider Future Facilities opens up about its virtual reality trials, and how the technology could change the way the entire industry operates

The use of virtual reality (VR) technology has the potential to radically change the way datacentre operators design their facilities and train the staff who work in them, but the industry – to date – has been relatively slow to come around to its charms.

Future Facilities, a London-based provider of datacentre engineering simulation software, claims VR technology could have a transformative effect on the datacentre industry, and has begun adapting its flagship 6SigmaDC product to run on an Oculus Rift headset.

The simulation software is used by private datacentre owners, colocation providers and the hyperscale cloud community to predict how the efficiency, reliability and overall running of their facilities would be affected by the introduction of new technologies or processes, for example.

The company can also pull in real-world mapping data from Google Earth to assess how external environmental factors, such as the surrounding terrain, affect a facility’s behaviour and performance.

Users have traditionally had to rely on desktop devices to use the 6SigmaDC software to navigate their facilities and pinpoint areas ripe for improvement, whereas the VR setup allows them to explore the site as though venturing into it on foot.   

“I was initially a bit sceptical about using VR because we can already produce some very nice visuals, as you walk around a datacentre, on the laptop,” Mark Fenton, senior product manager at Future Facilities, tells Computer Weekly.

“So we weren’t really sure, initially, what extra benefit virtual reality was going to bring us. But when you put the headset on for the first time, it really does change the way you interact with our models,” he says.

The company is around two months into the project, and has stared beta testing the setup with a select group of customers. Fenton is overseeing this work.

From virtual reality to augmented reality

The initial aim of the developer team at Future Facilities was to make using its software a more “immersive” experience for all involved, but the feedback it has received from beta users has prompted the company to revise up its ambitions for the technology.

“Even in our prototype, the Rift [headset] gives you full control over where you go, what you look at and how you do so, and that naturally means you want to see what’s going on and become inquisitive,” he says. “Eventually, we want to move that forward and allow users to interact with things and make changes in that world.”

“When you put the headset on for the first time, it really does change the way you interact with our models”
Mark Fenton, Future Facilities

That would mean making the jump from virtual reality to augmented reality (AR), whereby users will be able pull in real-time data from their datacentre infrastructure management (DCIM) platform, allowing them to carry out site assessments and initiate changes that will be instantly replicated in the physical environment.

The setup could also prove beneficial to organisations that embark on edge-type datacentre builds, where there might be hundreds of thousands of smaller sites that all need to be managed and monitored, says Fenton.

“For the very large datacentres – which support hundreds, maybe thousands, of those small edge sites – the benefits of strapping on a mask and being transported there and working out why you have an issue, without having to step foot into it, is hugely valuable,” he says.

Immersive visualisation

In the meantime, the setup could be used by designers who want to bring their concepts to life, or by hardware manufacturers to show how a new product they are bringing to market may perform in an existing customer site.

“You can show the customer their site with your hardware in it, which I think is really powerful from a consultant standpoint,” says Fenton.

“Lots of colocation providers offer a virtual tour [via the internet], so being able to do it with a Rift [VR headset] to physically immerse them in their cage and allow them to walk around and see the performance is a really strong pre-sales and engineering [play],” he adds.

Jon Leppard, chief operating officer at Future Facilities, says the company is still exploring the potential use cases for the technology, which is why getting it in the hands of beta customers is so valuable.

“You can show the customer their site with your hardware in it, which I think is really powerful from a consultant standpoint”
Mark Fenton, Future Facilities

“The reason we’re bringing in people now is not to show how brilliant the final product is, but to say we’re at the beginning of this journey, and by getting it out there people can ask us questions and give us feedback, so we make sure we’re getting everything we can out of it,” he says.

The company claims few, if any, other companies in the datacentre sector are embracing VR technology with the same degree of gusto, despite the transformative effect the technology has already had in other industries.

“We’re anticipating that VR is going to be a big thing, which is why we’re getting in there early. We’re certainly the only simulation company in datacentres using VR,” says Fenton. “There are a couple of companies using it to [model] airflow around cars, but for us it’s cutting edge and it’s exciting to be there.”

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