Most people in an organisation think about their data centre very infrequently, if at all. It is like water in the sink or electricity behind the light switch; it is there, serving a critical purpose that gets taken for granted when all is going well.

However, CEOs ignore data centres at their peril: data centres are at the heart of all things digital and are the life blood of keeping a business going, including essentially in the past year remote working. Put simply, data centre operations have a major impact on organisational success. Operational excellence in the data centre can make the critical difference, by improving customer experience and reducing costs, outage risks, and carbon footprint. On the other hand, data centre failure can be astonishingly costly.

Take the recent example of OVHcloud, where a fire destroyed one of four data centres in Strasbourg, Eastern France, and damaged another. The affected servers hosted 3.6 million websites, including niche government platforms in France, Britain, Poland and the Ivory Coast. The full implications of the damage are currently unknown.

One way to achieve operational excellence is to ensure that the data centre underpinning the business is achieving optimum performance and running as efficiently as possible.

What is optimum performance?

According to Darren Watkins, managing director at Virtus Data Centres, has his own views about what optimum performance looks like. “At Virtus, we have over a decade of experience in designing and operating cutting-edge data centres, so we know what to look for,” he says. “For most data centre providers, 100 per cent availability is a key performance indicator since the IT loads they support are mission-critical and the impact and cost of downtime is high.

“Scalability is equally vital for performance, as customers look to operators to provide space as and when needed. This is particularly important for colocation providers that are required to flex their provision alongside their multiple customers’ changing requirements. For example, High-Performance Compute (HPC) environments need large amounts of power and the agility to rapidly change consumption profile in line with demand. At the same time, modern data centres are expected to keep power usage within environmental requirements.”

There are other performance metrics to consider; how energy efficient the data centre is, what its Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating is, how cost effective it is in terms of CapEx, OpEx, or total cost of ownership (TCO) and how sustainable and environmentally compliant the design is. All these things affect cost and some strategic spending in the data centre may improve the cost picture elsewhere.

“Other critical resources are increasingly being measured for performance, such as Water Usage Efficiency (WUE) and reporting the reduction of carbon emissions,” Watkins adds. “These metrics are becoming more of a necessity as many organisations are regularly asking providers for evidence of robust sustainability and carbon reduction measures for their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments. Plus, the EU Commission recently set a green deadline, noting that the industry ‘should become climate neutral by 2030’.”

Efficiency of operations

Power and cooling account for much of the operating costs of a data centre, and as such they are a crucial consideration for efficiency and performance. Trends like immersion cooling, back-up power and generation solutions are all interesting areas for innovation in the future.

Watkins explains that Virtus has been particularly innovative when it comes to cooling. “Sustainability (or lack of) in technology and data centres may have hit the headlines recently, but it has always been front of mind for us. When LONDON2 was designed and built back in 2014, we sourced the required water from a natural underground aquifer to minimise usage of mains water. We also built air-flooded data halls that use hot aisle containment and are cooled using indirect evaporative air technology. This provides cooling, but with a very low energy efficient use. At other Virtus sites, rainwater harvesting, and reuse of heat waste are common features.”

Liquid cooling has fast made a comeback in the industry as a way of maintaining optimal operating temperatures, notably in the HPC arena, together with innovative techniques like using indirect evaporative air. “We use a variety of these techniques in our facilities alongside innovations in liquid cooling,” Watkins continues. “We strive to produce a 1.0x PUE which, according to the Uptime Institute’s annual survey, is well below the 2020 average of 1.58x. Across the industry, all operators attempt to get the PUE ratio down to as near to 1.0x as possible, with most new builds falling between 1.2x and 1.4x.”

In terms of power requirements, the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) will be determined by several factors, including the criticality of the systems under load, the quality of the existing power supply and of course, the cost. When it comes to energy use, many providers are committed to using 100 per cent renewable and carbon-zero energy sources – helping them and their customers to meet environmental goals while also providing cost savings and increasing reliability.

Meeting a growing demand

Market demand for data centre space has been growing year-on-year, and it is predicted that it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future as more and more devices connect to the internet and more data than ever is produced. As long as the increasing data needs to be analysed and converted into information, there will be a continued demand for data centres to both process and store it.

By ensuring operational excellence in data centres, CEOs can rely on a robust and secure high performing solution that is efficient and can support the business now, and in the future, without dramatically affecting cost.

“It is clear that pressures on CEOs are linked to data centre operations in one way or another,” Watkins concludes. “The need for ever increasing data centre power and space comes with constant cost and sustainability requirements, so time and investment must be spent on research and development to ensure the right solutions are being used to improve performance and efficiency. Forward-looking CEOs will want their organisations to work closely in partnership with providers to innovate and enhance performance and efficiency wherever possible.”

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