London South Bank University: modelling tomorrow's cleaner, greener datacentres

How London South Bank University (LSBU) meets the IT industry's rising demand for research into building more energy-efficient datacentres

As the race to design ever more energy-efficient datacentres heats up, IT industry players large and small are engaged in efforts to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint and improve energy efficiency (see panel below).

But although the IT industry has profound commercial, regulatory and sustainability incentives to develop more efficient datacentre technologies, arguably the biggest energy savings to be made come not from the design of servers, semiconductors and other IT components – but from the design of the building itself. 

Factors such as the layout of the building and the systems of power and cooling it uses can make a substantial difference to the amount of energy it consumes. Cooling, for example, accounts for around 40% of an average datacentre’s energy use.

In other words, the people whose knowledge and skills the industry requires to make the biggest impact on its energy efficiency are not traditional IT folk, but their close (and becoming ever closer) colleagues in buildings and facilities design and engineering.

While the skills of efficient datacentre design are increasingly nurtured by industry, the knowledge that builds those skills does not generally stem from the R&D laboratories of the big datacentre builders and operators, but from academia.

One institution at the forefront of producing engineers to meet the challenge of designing more efficient datacentres is London South Bank University (LSBU), which introduced the world’s first building services engineering course more than 60 years ago.

Around 20% of our students now choose projects related to datacentres for their graduation dissertation, up from nothing ten years ago

Dr Issa Chaer, LSBU

Dr Issa Chaer, course director for building services engineering at LSBU, says: “Our students look at the systems in buildings – from the air conditioning to heating to power and lighting. Almost all the past presidents of the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), for example, have graduated through LSBU.”

Over 90% of the course’s undergraduate and MSc students today come from industry. “Some of the big global names in datacentres recommend their students come over to LSBU, because we were one of the first institutions to tackle datacentres, in our building services curriculum,” says Chaer. 

Growth in energy focus

“Around 20% of our students now choose projects related to datacentres for their graduation dissertation  – a figure that’s grown from nothing only ten years ago.”

In particular, he says, he’s seen a marked increase in those focusing on sustainable energy use by datacentres. 

“We have a very strong body of knowledge in the area of cooling, for example, that we’re using to engage the datacentre industry by helping operators to reduce their energy demands and improve their cost-effectiveness,” says Chaer.

Role of modelling software

Modelling plays a major part in enabling students to come up with the most energy-efficient designs. 

Traditionally, this was done using reference guides and spreadsheets but, for the past six months, LSBU has been using dedicated datacentre modelling software from Romonet

The software greatly eases the task of modelling different datacentre designs and technologies, such as cooling and power management. 

“Students and research fellows are using the software for their major projects and dissertations, including the modelling and lifecycle performance evaluation of existing datacentres and advanced new cooling technologies,” Chaer says.

Chaer adds that, because students can try out a far greater range of models – constantly assessing different schemas and technologies – the system is improving their modelling skills at a subconscious level. 

“Traditionally, every time a student wanted to model a design they’d refer to benchmark figures given in books. But when they use the software, those default values come up all the time and stick in their mind – they no longer have to go back to the guidelines,” he says.

The influence of advanced modelling on real-world datacentre design is already being felt

Dr Issa Chaer, LSBU

And since they’ve been able to experiment more readily, students are coming up with more radical designs, using innovative technologies that could well point the way towards far more efficient datacentres in future. 

“I can’t disclose the nature of specific designs for commercial reasons, but a number of students have devised models that are extremely challenging to conventional wisdom," says Chaer. 

"One student, for instance, came up with a design so revolutionary you can see why no-one had thought of it before. Now he’s taken that back to the industry, so the influence of this advanced modelling on real-world datacentre design is already being felt.”

If the IT industry is to truly improve its energy efficiency to a sustainable level, at a rate that keeps up with the vast predicted increase in demand for datacentre processing, Chaer believes the “umbilical” relationship between commerce and academic institutions like LSBU will grow ever more critical. 

“Our aim is to equip graduates with knowledge that will really have a positive and transformative impact on the sustainability of datacentre industry as a whole,” Chaer says.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT