Rackspace in Crawley - datacentre services trump pharma

A visit to the UK base of Rackspace’s ‘Fanatical Support’ group in West London is a truly cosmopolitan experience. Above every Racker’s (as it calls its staff members) desk is a national flag representing their country of origin – think UN General Assembly meets the IT Crowd. Some of these Rackers are indeed supporting a growing number of customers based in continental Europe and further afield, especially as the take up of Rackspace’s self-service products increases. However, their mixed heritage says as much about London as it does about Rackspace itself; despite its size and growth, the cloud services company’s comfort zone is still mainly in the English-speaking world.

This is one of the reasons for Rackspace’s decision to focus a huge new round of infrastructure investment in the West Sussex town of Crawley, vastly increasing its UK footprint, rather than expanding into other European markets. The scale of the investment will be greeted by many in Crawley, which lies just south of Gatwick Airport. The project will bring new jobs to the town, making productive new use of a 15 acre brown field site that has lain derelict since being abandoned by a pharmaceuticals manufacturer in 2011 (with around 500 of job losses).

Rackspace did consider locations to the chillier north, even perhaps in the Nordic region. However, the cost of dedicated fibre connections outweighed potential power savings from less spent on cooling and anyway, Rackspace says it likes to be where its customers are, especially with the growing volumes of data being handled. Having decided on South East England, Crawley had the benefit of good transport and data connections and ample power supply, the town not (yet) being a noted data centre hub.

The plan is to develop three data centres on the site, each with a capacity of 10 megawatts (for comparison, Rackspace’s Slough data centre, that opened in 2010 is 6 megawatts, the two will be connected by a dedicated metro fibre link).  It is not just the scale of the investment that is of interest, but also the revolutionary design of the data centres. Each will be based 100% on specifications and designs from the Open Compute Project. Rackspace says that this underpins its philosophy that anything that can be open should be open; the company has been a major contributor to the project.

Open Compute includes everything from data centre design and cooling, to servers and operating systems, such as the Rackspace-backed OpenStack that Quocirca covered in another recent blog post. Whilst any organisation can source stuff from, and contribute to, Open Compute, none to date has committed their whole on-going data centre strategy to it in the way Rackspace is planning in Crawley. Open Compute’s other major backers include Facebook, Intel, Goldman Sachs and Arista Networks. Microsoft is joining and has donated some power management tools to the project (but not its operating system!)

For a company such as Rackspace, whose core value proposition is selling top quality cloud-based services out of state-of-the-art data centres, it may seem strange to give away so much of its intellectual property. Rackspace says, no problem, we differentiate on top of the stack. Part of that is the ‘Fanatical Support’ that increasingly includes architecting and coding for its customers. It also includes the flexibility it provides to mix and match private and public cloud resources within and beyond its data centres.

As well as the use of Open Compute there are other innovations aimed at flexibility and reduced energy consumption. The floors are solid concrete rather than raised, all wiring, including power supply will be via structured overhead space. This allows easy changes to the required power mix across racks as more and more are given over to handling that growing demand for storage compared to the lower footprint required for increasingly efficient servers. The data centres will operate at the relatively warm temperature of 29.5 degrees centigrade using non-mechanical “indirect outside air” cooling. This is an adiabatic system (i.e. with no overall gain or loss of heat), whereby the inside air is sealed from the outside and evaporation is used to cool down the outside air which is then used to cool the inside via heat exchangers. It is equivalent to a standard air conditioning unit, but with no compressor relying instead on low-speed, low-power fans. Rackspace and its data centre builder partner Digital Reality Trust (DRT) say this will reduce overall energy consumption by 80%.

This major investment will likely see the UK grow as a percentage of Rackspace’s overall business which is still dominated by the USA, where is has data centres in Virginia, Texas and Illinois. Beyond this are facilities in Hong Kong (an English-friendly portal to greater-China) and Sydney, Australia. To ensure it can remain competitive with the likes of Google and Amazon, Rackspace knows it needs to up the ante when it comes to global connectivity. To this end it is looking to partner with its Open Compute friends at Facebook and piggy back on the social network’s intercontinental fibre links.

Rackspace may be focussed primarily on the English-speaking world, but its infrastructure and connectivity gives it the global reach to serve certain multi-nationals as well as those in its core markets. The physical location of its data centre may preclude it from providing local services in other markets, but as a though leader and contributor to data centre design its influence will be truly global.

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