Case study: Alquist uses Celsius to decrease energy consumption

Alquist, winner of the Best Technology Innovation in the Computer Weekly European User Awards for Networking, shares its winning case study

The UK is facing an energy crisis. Demand is going up, but the UK’s ability to generate energy to meet that demand is not rising at the same rate. Prices are increasing, too, as the new capacity being built across the country needs to be paid for.

This perfect storm of factors means businesses must become more efficient in their energy use. It is not as simple as using less energy, because demand dictates that simply isn’t a feasible approach.

The datacentre industry, for example, currently uses an estimated 3% of the UK’s base generation capacity – and that figure is predicted to rise to 6% by 2020. That is a huge increase at a time when prices are rising and the economy is still struggling to get back on its feet.

In fact, the datacentre industry is one where innovation has the potential to radically change this around. Datacentres consume huge amounts of power as many are overcooled to ensure equipment does not get too hot and break down. Many are kept between 18°C and 22°C, which many experts claim is unnecessarily cool.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) suggests anywhere up to 45°C is acceptable, depending on what equipment is being used in the datacentre. Enterprise servers and storage products can safely be kept at 32°C, according to ASHRAE.

Reducing datacentre energy costs through monitoring

Raising the temperature in a datacentre can help reduce costs. For every 1°C rise in temperature, datacentres can save 5% on their energy costs. But given that datacentres are full of very expensive equipment that powers many important services, it is vital that they still perform as needed, and do not overheat.

Raising the temperature in a datacentre can help reduce costs. For every 1°C rise in temperature, datacentres can save 5% on their energy costs

That’s where Alquist’s new technology comes in. The Cambridge-based datacentre temperature monitoring firm was founded in 2012 and is a sister company to Alquist Consulting, which works with the oil and gas and power transmission industries to monitor and control energy usage.

Its Celsius platform, self-funded and developed by Andrew Jones, managing director of Alquist Consulting, can measure 20,000 temperature points along a single, standard 50/125 fibre optic cable that can run above, below or within data cabinets. The cable itself is the sensor; there are no wireless transmissions, no electronic devices that transmit data, no batteries required and no maintenance needed.

It uses high-precision lasers and Raman backscattering analysis techniques to measure the stokes/anti-stokes characteristics of the reflected light. The tiny variations in the colour of the reflected light allows the temperature of the fibre to be determined at one-metre intervals along its entire length, every 15 seconds.

Celsius uses this information to generate a heatmap of the datacentre, which is presented in a Windows-based desktop visualisation app. Users can then analyse this data and make adjustments to the temperature if required.

“It’s not as simple as just whacking the temperature up because, although that would reduce costs, things could go wrong,” says Jones. “So what this does is give users the confidence to increase temperatures slightly, by say half a degree. If they see there’s no impact, they have the confidence to go up by another degree.”

The issues Jones mentions can range from the warranty on equipment becoming void if it goes above the manufacturer’s recommended maximum temperature to breaching customer service level agreements. Serious problems in the datacentre can have catastrophic consequences, with possible losses running into millions of pounds if, for example, customers include logistics operations or trading floors whose businesses are halted.

Alquist's Celsius platform was named Best Technology Innovation winner in the Computer Weekly European User Awards for Networking 2014.

Government funding for energy management

The potential of Celsius has already been recognised by the government. In 2013, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) awarded Alquist £1m in funding. Alquist is now taking part in two large demonstration projects in London datacentres, working alongside consortium members including Schneider Electric and Verizon.

Although the project is ongoing, Jones says the results are already encouraging, with energy consumption decreasing at both sites. A detailed report will be released at the end of the trial period, which is expected to be in 2015.

Datacentre service provider Interxion is another company that has joined the pilot project, running a trial at its City of London datacentre. The company says it already pulls 50% of its energy requirements and it hopes this project will help further improve its energy efficiency.

“Being at the forefront of energy efficiency has always been a desire of Interxion and this pilot further reinforces this,” says Interxion’s chief marketing officer Kevin Dean. “We look forward to being involved with the project and working with Alquist and the government to drive efficiencies across the datacentre industry.”

Datacentres and beyond

The potential of Celsius extends beyond the datacentre. Jones says anywhere the temperature of an environment or of equipment is an issue could benefit from this. 

“All energy we consume is converted to heat, and so by measuring temperature we can get a pretty good picture of what’s going on. I think the applications for this extend well beyond the datacentre,” he says.

Uses can include wind farm monitoring and long-distance electricity networks, for example, as well as leak detection, particularly in long-distance liquid gas pipelines. A change in temperature can often mean a leak, which is where Celsius has a part to play, Jones believes.

For now, however, the focus for Celsius will remain the datacentre. Despite their huge energy consumption, many datacentres will only have a handful of temperature monitors, which means they are not getting a clear picture of exactly what is going on and where savings can be made. That’s very surprising as even a small adjustment in temperature can dramatically reduce energy costs.

“For a long time datacentres have not had to worry about the cost of energy because they’ve been viewed as so critical to the infrastructure of a business that they’ve basically been able to do what they want,” Jones concludes. “But suddenly costs are creeping up, and it’s cost that people worry about. Electricity prices are not going to be going down any time soon so it’s now about managing and reducing that cost.”

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