By Robert Harris, Technical Services Director, Telehouse Europe

If energy prices continue on the same upward trajectory they have been on in the last few years, then any business that currently uses colocation services will be more than a little concerned. Managing spiralling energy costs is arguably one of the single biggest concerns for organisations operating in today’s technology-driven business world. So what can you do to minimise the impact such price fluctuations can have on your overall data centre and colocation costs, and what can a leading colocation data centre company like Telehouse do to help you through such challenging times?

No one would argue that sourcing energy is now a boardroom issue. And it’s one that has particular relevance to the IT systems that voraciously consume it. Price increases have significantly impacted overheads for facilities such as data and colocation centres. And with costs unlikely to return to previous levels any time soon (due largely to supply issues and a turbulent political landscape), businesses must take steps to review ways to manage their energy consumption more efficiently. Telehouse Europe has been deliberate in pursuing ‘due diligence’ in the drive to improve energy consumption and manage spiralling costs for the benefit of its customers.

The price of power

Between spring 2005 and 2006, wholesale electricity prices surged by 75 per cent . The rise was triggered by a cold winter, concerns over global energy supplies and, closer to home, power generation issues in Europe. According to Cap Gemini’s European Energy Markets Observatory report, during late 2005 and early 2006 the UK’s margin between supply and demand fell to its lowest ever level of 4.8 per cent. The report points to under-investment in new generation facilities across Europe as a root cause of the problem and one that needs urgent attention.

Despite recent falls in power costs, the longer-term trend indicates that the energy market will be subject to continued fluctuations. Price hikes are likely to become a more familiar, if unwelcome, problem. Spiralling bills, of course, impact IT operations. And significantly so: the Institute of Electrical Engineers (the IEEE) believes that the UK’s IT equipment consumes seven per cent of the country’s total energy supply.

The energy issue has particular relevance to the colocation sector where the utility is one of its primary overhead costs. The sector’s initial course of action was to protect its customers from price turbulence by absorbing the increases itself. But the extent of the rises has ultimately meant that the sector has had to begin passing on a proportion of the higher costs to its customers. This has resulted in a range of strategies being developed to enhance the efficiency of colocation facilities. Below are some of the key highlights from a wide range of measures we’ve adopted. The intention is to do all we can to reassure our customers we are doing all we can to manage rising costs as effectively as possible.

Metering matters

Traditionally, in colocation facilities, power costs are shared across customers depending on their infrastructure and space requirements. Moving away from this model has resulted in the availability of individual rack metering for customers. This fulfils two key objectives: firstly, it’s a much more equitable way of charging as you only pay for the power you use and no more. Secondly, it’s possible to monitor and measure power usage and advise when and how much power your systems consume and their overall and actual demands. This intelligence is often highly illuminating with many companies actually using less energy resources than they initially expected to.

What you can measure, you can improve. Once energy consumption figures are available, it becomes a whole lot easier to evaluate approaches to enhancing system efficiency. While this is an area that typically falls under the remit of the customers’ IT teams (typically responsibility lies with the data centre department), it’s important that companies assess the efficiency of their infrastructures. New approaches to rack and server operations can reduce energy efficiency. A great example of this is virtualisation, which uses software to partition server and rack assets so that numerous applications can be run off the same machine thereby optimising infrastructure usage.

Smart purchasing

We have recently moved to buying our power on the wholesale spot market, using specialist buyers. These people can assess and predict risk factors that may increase shortages and therefore jack up prices. The market is tracked at regular intervals enabling energy to be acquired in a much more flexible, responsive and cost-efficient manner. Purchasing can be made at a set price as far as 24 months in advance to avoid possible short-term market spikes. Pooling requirements with other companies further enhances purchasing power. We can also sell energy too. Charging customers at a fixed rate means you can be confident that you’re securing the best price level. It also means you benefit from more stable costing, protecting you as far as possible from ad hoc price fluctuations.

Best practice

A range of best practice operational factors can significantly reduce the power consumption of IT facilities. These include the type of power systems used; approaches to air conditioning; and issues such as metering. Air conditioning in particular is a dynamic area. New approaches are becoming available such as liquid cooling for racks. Additionally, research indicates that raising racks off the ground and circulating cold air from beneath is more effective than ceiling- mounted systems. Colocation companies must stay abreast of technical advances and re-design data centre rooms accordingly to make them as efficient as possible. Taking this a step further, by working with the customer to review their system profile, and tailoring the air conditioning and power systems, ensures their systems operate at maximum efficiency, and in turn reduces power consumption.

Check redundancy levels

Redundancy is a term applied by the colocation industry to express the power efficiency of premises. Power is lost through electricity distribution, lighting, uninterruptible supply boxes, air conditioning and heat generation. Ensuring that as little power as possible is consumed by such ‘keep the lights on’ activity ultimately reduces overall running costs. Having visibility of a company’s ‘redundancy performance’ is a good indication of the overall design and effective operation of the data centre.

Diligence pays dividends

Fortunately, one of the IT sector’s great assets is its ability to adapt to change and challenge. Identify a problem and the relentless progress of innovation will create a solution. The colocation sector is no exception. While electricity prices have trebled since 2003 , new approaches to data centre room design, encompassing smart air conditioning, metering, and rack and server formations, can help negate the impact of these rises.

If you are currently looking to review your colocation requirements, or better plan for future needs, Telehouse will be able to share with you their experiences from the last 20 years of being in the industry and discuss their approach to energy efficiency and redundancy performance. This exercise has proved invaluable to many of our customers to identify hidden efficiencies and ultimately pay real dividends in the form of significantly reduced operating costs. Complemented by the dynamic purchase of power on the wholesale market, our aim is to ensure that your Telehouse data centre remains a highly competitive and compelling part of your business strategy.