The Stack Archive

Is there life after legacy? – A runner’s guide to data centres

Fri 10 Mar 2017 | Ian

Runner data centre

GCHQ data centre operations manager Ian presents a runner’s guide to breathing new life into the legacy data centre…

A good few years ago, if you had asked me how I was, like many, I would have said simply, “OK. How are you?” What precisely does that mean? How would you define the state of OK? At that particular time I was fit. Very fit. Athletic. I was training hard and running every day, sometimes twice. Putting the miles in and pushing my performance to the next level. I had a personal coach who knew what it took to get the best out of me and upped my game accordingly.

You could say that I was optimised for peak performance; my muscular and cardio-vascular systems at a peak and ready to meet the levels of performance that were asked of them – On Demand.

Fast forward to today and ask me the same question. Funnily enough, I’d probably say the same things as I think I’m OK! However, a lot has changed and the same answer masks a noticeable and steady state of decline caused by the passing of years, a change of lifestyle and to be truthful, a certain amount of neglect and lack of personal investment.

Am I still fit for purpose? Most definitely, or at the very least for the purpose I have now. However, I’m sure that my wonderful wife would prefer a slightly leaner, fitter version and my mother keeps reminding me how much weight I have put on, but what has this to do with data centres?

Twenty years ago, one of the data centres that I currently operate was designed and built. We began operational occupation in 2002 and has around 10,000m2 of pristine data centre space to occupy. Flush with the optimism that comes with the start of a new venture and excited by the journey, the organisation’s IT Services had a grand plan for the seemingly vast area of space that we would surely never fill.

We contemplated keeping a “fallow space” to allow us to install, decommission, remodel and refresh as we grew. We had structured cabling in place to be able to provide connectivity to the user community – On Demand. We knew what our power, space and cooling limits were and we had sufficient metrics at the time (we thought) to be able to keep on top of it all. We were fit. Very fit. We were optimised for the time. We were in a good place. We were OK.

Hitting the limit

Again, fast forward to today. The halls appear full, the idea of a “fallow space” is a faded, distant memory. The structured cabling and containment is burgeoning at the seams. We have hit the limit – or so we think. Like me, we have hit middle age, thinking we are still “OK” but hiding behind a steady decline caused not only by the passing of the years but also by a change in priorities driven by limited public sector spending, a certain amount of neglect and certainly a lack of corporate investment.

Incremental advances have pumped new life into technology that had previously been thought to be approaching end of life

Data centre technology continues to evolve at pace. Moore’s Law seems to continue unabated. What was once housed in 1,000 racks can now be outperformed by a single 2kW server.

Back when we started 4kW per rack was seen as a hard limit that couldn’t be exceeded. Fast forward and data centre designers had the realisation that cabinets approaching 20 to 30kW load were approaching the natural limits of air-cooled devices. On the other hand, experimental projects have shown cabinet loads upwards of 40 to 50kW are quite possible using air-cooled methods.

In addition, the manufacturers of the processors and internal components have, in essence, extended the life of traditional air-cooled technology by designing for warmer temperatures and a higher airflow delta T across the devices. Coupled with data centre best practices, such as the use of aisle containment and airflow management, more cooling can be delivered to where it is needed. These incremental advances have pumped new life into technology that had previously been thought to be approaching end of life. This progression may also go some way to explain why new and innovative technologies such as close coupled water and immersion cooling have yet to take flight.

Big data and analytics

The appetite for computer processing power, data manipulation and consumption has increased exponentially as the human thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world around us continues. This demand has led to the world of big data and analytics. Couple this with the move to the Internet of Things and suddenly we also have an unprecedented demand for data storage and network connectivity that we could only dream of fifteen years ago. OM5 solutions supporting duplex transmission up to 200G are here. The standard for 400G has been set and solutions at this speed are being worked.

Back to athletes. The holistic use of technology, data analytics and the increased human understanding of physiology, diet, performance, training and recovery has seen records continually broken and witnessed performance unheard of 20 years ago. If you were lucky back then, your talent was recognised and, like me, you had a coach. Investment in today’s athlete includes the provision of a coach, a physiotherapist, a masseur – and there are others, sports psychologists, nutritionist and data analyst are all on hand to join the dedicated team that uses the latest methodology coupled with the collection and analysis of real-time data to bring about the optimum performance.

dcim-runnerWe, the operations managers, are the athlete. We have the technology and a team of dedicated experts at our disposal. We have an increasing array of tools and techniques that enable us to continually push the boundaries of our estate and optimise the performance of our systems.

The fields of DCIM, environmental monitoring, intelligent PDUs, coupled with the new and emergent cooling technologies are all offering opportunities for us to be leaner, fitter, better.

However, bringing them all together in one place at one time, requires the discipline of the athlete to keep pushing when the going gets tough.

This analogy is also true when you look at re-lifing an old data centre.

Getting a grip of the assets including any underlying shadow IT via DCIM; carrying out an aggressive decommissioning program of the legacy infrastructure and cabling; then you have the installation of intelligent PDUs and associated environmental monitoring to name but a few. These are tough challenges that holistically represent a formidable mountain to climb which is not for the fainthearted.

Optimising use of new technologies

Take DCIM, perhaps the biggest challenge of them all, for instance. Getting the most out of your chosen solution is a tough ask. I’ve met many data centre managers from different sectors who have tried to implement a total DCIM solution yet fall off the pace when they get to the point of “We’re OK” and vastly underutilise the power of the tool they are implementing. I can see a much better world and, perhaps more importantly, a true return on investment, if we push ourselves, putting in the extra effort to mount the summit.

With a comparatively small investment compared to a new build and some innovative thinking, I’m convinced that we can continue to breathe life into our legacy data centres

Sometimes it is easier to build new, whether traditional or modular, and retire the old. We see it in the news every day but at what cost? Typically, it is dependent upon a number of factors in selecting your data centre and facilities – IT, cooling, networking, resilience, etc. the cost can vary from £3 – £8 million per megawatt including build.

Undoubtedly the time from breaking ground to completion can be shortened but there is also a cost for having the additional resources to deliver to such a short timescale. If you look across our industry, I also believe that there is a market for re-lifing old data centres with a number of companies starting to do just that or even taking over old buildings and converting them for data centre use.

If the existing legacy space is suitable, then to me, it’s a relatively simple answer. We have the teams at our disposal. We know the roles needed to optimise performance and build for the future. What we need to secure is the corporate investment that lies behind every athlete, the willingness of the organisation to back our ability and judgement. With a comparatively small investment compared to a new build and some innovative thinking, I’m convinced that we can continue to breathe life into our legacy data centres and make them fit for 21st-century world class businesses.

After all, world-class needs to run through the entire fabric of the organisation and not just the bit that is customer facing for it to be truly world class. The vision needs to be lived, breathed and the hard effort spent in order to transform legacy to legitimacy and deliver cost savings year-on-year; driving up the efficiency of our estates whilst driving down the associated costs of power and cooling.

How am I doing today? It’s fair to say “I’m still OK”, but I know and passionately believe that I could be better. All it takes is a certain amount of belief, creativity, investment and effort. Like the athlete of old in me, maybe it’s time to put the mental running shoes back on and start putting the effort in to drive our estate to the next level. Perhaps some of you should think about it too.


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