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CIOs urged to act on datacentre power outage threats

Colocation provider Verne Global calls on CIOs to pay attention to Institution of mechanical engineers' concerns over sustainability of UK energy supply

CIOs need to start seeking assurances from datacentre operators about their preparedness for power outages, following recent warnings about the threat of electricity shortfalls in the UK.

A recent report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) said the UK is at risk of suffering an “electricity supply crisis” with demand from consumers and businesses for power set to outstrip supply by up to 55%.

The main source of the problem, according to the IME, is the government’s energy policies, which have seen it commit to closing all coal-fired power stations by 2025, while taking steps to retire the UK’s ageing fleet of nuclear plants.

The government previously set out plans to replace the lost capacity by building Combined Cycle Gas Turbine Plants (CCGT) – but the IME’s Engineering the UK Electricity Gap report warns the UK will be unable to build enough of them in time to make up the shortfall.

Jenifer Baxter, the report's author and head of energy and environment at the IME, said it would be “almost impossible” for the UK’s growing demand for energy to be met by 2025.

“The UK is facing an electricity supply crisis. As the UK population rises and with the greater use of electricity use in transport and heating it looks almost certain that electricity demand is going to rise,” she said.

“However with little or no focus on reducing electricity demand, the retirement of the majority of the country’s ageing nuclear fleet, recent proposals to phase out coal-fired power by 2025 and the cut in renewable energy subsidies, the UK is on course to produce even less electricity than it does at the moment.”

Jorge Balcells, director of technical services at Iceland-based colocation provider Verne Global, said CIOs should examine how protected their IT operations are from being disrupted by power outages.

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Thirsty big data analytics

Speaking at the High Performance Computing and Big Data conference in central London, Balcells said many people take the availability of power for granted, despite the National Grid’s spare capacity margin being around just 5%.

In Iceland, where Verne Global’s facility is sited, the country reportedly operates at a 90% spare capacity margin, thanks to the availability of hydroelectricity and geothermal energy within the region.

For companies running mission critical workloads in UK datacentres or important HPC projects, this issue needs to be on their CIOs’ radar so they can take pre-emptive steps to prevent business disruption, should brownouts occur.

This is because the UK's growing appetite for big data analytics projects means the demand for power is rising.

"The amount of data we're responsibile for handling these days is growing and, for those in the HPC sector, it is growing at a pace greater than 7% year-on year," he said.

"We're seeing a huge expansion in the amount of power needed, driven by this data growth. So much so, what we're using the power required to power a country the size of Spain or Italy.

"In the UK, specifically, you're looking at 3,000-4,000 mW being consumed today, and this is growing in line with the explosion in data we are seeing."

Balcells told Computer Weekly that private datacentre operators should start seeking assurances from their utility providers about how supply to their facilities would be prioritised in the event of a power outage. He said operators should also push them to commit to a longer-term fixed pricing plan, as many providers tend to only offer 2-3 years. 

Datacentre contracts

In a similar vein, colocation users would be well-advised to check the terms of their provider’s service level agreements (SLAs) to see how well covered they would be in the event of a power outage.

“If you’re contracting in London, for example, you want to be assured they can meet your temperature, humidity, power availability and network availability needs, and then pay very close attention to the wording,” he said.

If the provider is doing their job right, they should be already in discussions – on behalf of their customers - with their utility providers and have a plan in place in case of a power outage, he said.

“We are constantly talking to utility companies because a CIO is going to come to us and say they want to expand in kW, which means we will need top up our capacity in mW terms to accommodate that and acquire large chunks of power,” he said. 

If CIOs do not like the answers they receive from their datacentre partners, it might be time to start thinking about shifting any power-hungry and business-critical workloads to a competitor who can offer the assurances they need, he advised.

“The key question CIOs and the like have to ask themselves in this situation has to be: ‘Is every single server I have mission-critical and does it have to be near to where I am or in the same building?’ And they soon start to realise not every server needs to be in a certain location,” he said.

“And that starts to open up a whole new world, and broaden their horizons about where their IT needs to be, and then they can start to evaluate what their other options are.” 

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