Case study: University of St Andrews squeezes green datacentre into squash court

University of St Andrews CIO Steve Watt tells how the 600-year-old institution squeezed an energy-efficient datacentre into a squash court

St Andrews might be best known for its golf courses, but the historic Scottish town’s 600-year-old university has been playing a different game with its datacentre – squash. Faced with a sprawling IT estate, CIO Steve Watt set about creating a compact and efficient micro-datacentre.

The University of St Andrews had around 400 servers spread across 50 sites, as well as over 4,000 university-owned client devices accessing systems from thousands of network hubs and access points spanning almost 150 buildings. 

Then there’s the growing demand for bandwidth and computing power coming from all the smartphones, tablets and laptops owned by more than 10,400 students and staff. Indeed, Watt says much of today’s university computing is about bring your own device (BYOD). 

“The whole ecosystem and support model is radically different. There’s also a greater demand for power – not just in terms of Wi-Fi coverage, but in terms of charging or powering devices. So I’ve been trying to take the complexity out of running IT and start adding value back so we’re no longer seen as a cost centre,” he says.

Building a micro-datacentre

Speaking at the 2014 Data Centre World conference in London in February, Watt said he opted to build a micro-datacentre to ease the support burden on the IT department and free up his team to focus on more innovative projects, as well as to reduce energy use in line with the university’s aim of becoming carbon neutral by 2016. In addition, eliminating the sprawl of servers across the campus would free up space for other uses.

I might not have done much for students' fitness, but at least I found a suitable location for my servers

Steve Watt, University of St Andrews

Although he uses the cloud for commodity applications such as email, for now the economics of going totally "infrastructure-free" don’t add up for St Andrews, mainly due to the cost of providing high-bandwidth links to remote sites. “In future, the business case for keeping systems on-premise will be weaker,” Watt predicts.

For now, creating his own centralised facility was the greenest, most cost-effective option. But before he could do that, Watt first needed to find a suitable space for the micro-datacentre. 

“Because St Andrews is such a historic town, real estate is very expensive and many of its buildings are listed. That meant I had to find somewhere in the university that could accommodate the infrastructure, which wasn’t easy,” says Watt.

He needed to squeeze everything into as small an area as possible, and (appropriately enough) ended up commandeering an area of the university’s squash courts. “I might not have done very much to advance the fitness of St Andrews’ students, but at least I managed to find a suitable location for my servers,” he says.

Built-in energy efficiency

A major part of creating an efficient micro-datacentre is about ensuring you have appropriate cooling systems. “Air distribution is constrained because of the space available, so we went for a dual-coil water-cooled direct expansion (DX) system, dry air coolers and variable speed pumps, reusing the waste heat wherever possible,” says Watt.

The facility has 22 racks with separate hot and cold aisles, and uses a mix of free air and DX cooling. “When it’s cold outside – which in Scotland is most of the time – we get free cooling all the way round. We only switch to DX when the temperature goes above 25°C, which is generally only about six days a year,” he says.

Watt also worked closely with suppliers to ensure he procured the most suitable power systems. “We spent a long time researching power and we’ve built a 250kW facility with an optimal power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.2. Because we sit at the edge of the grid, resilience was an issue, but we’ve managed to sort that out,” he says.

The micro-datacentre has had a “dramatic effect” on the university’s energy consumption, but Watt says it’s vital to measure actual usage rather than rely on the claims of manufacturers. 

“Measure power, temperatures, flow pressures – everything you possibly can. It helps you make informed decisions. For example, we were able to reduce our daily PUE simply by tweaking some of the subsystems,” he says. 

Tools such as datacentre infrastructure management (DCIM) are making the task of monitoring and measurement ever easier and more comprehensive, he adds.

When it's cold outside we get free cooling

Steve Watt, University of St Andrews

Watt is also a passionate evangelist for the EU Code of Conduct on Data Center Energy Efficiency, which he says “forces you and your team to follow best practice”.

As well as being the first UK public body to be awarded the BCS’s Ceeda accreditation for energy-efficient datacentres, the university has seen compelling business and operational benefits from the new facility. “Student and staff satisfaction has increased; systems are more stable; space has been reduced; and service provision has improved dramatically,” says Watt.

And among his own team, morale has shot up. “Now they can be much more professional in their approach because they’re no longer seen as the people supporting a failing infrastructure,” he says.

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