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It goes without saying that most businesses are totally dependent on their IT systems, and these systems in turn are entirely dependent on the physical environment in which they operate. That environment involves two essential basic elements – reliable power supplies and a constant temperature. In my last post on the mechanics of running a data centre, I explained the important role that UPS systems play – and today it’s the turn of the humble cooling system! The middle of winter may not seem an obvious time to mention this, but it’s an ideal time to address the issue, when your cooling systems are not already stretched to the limit.

Many organisations choose operate their own IT and communications systems on their own premises. In the old days, when IT was an adjunct to the business, that worked just fine – and it can still be fine today, but only if it is properly specified, installed, operated and maintained. Temperature is the most difficult aspect to deal with when running your own data centre, and is the most common cause of failure. The equipment in a company’s ‘computer area’ generally works well for most of the time, but when outside temperatures go up, unexplained and erratic problems start to happen as the cooling systems reach capacity.

London has relatively temperate environment, with few major variations in temperature, as might be the case in somewhere like New York for example. For most of the year, the outside temperature is well within the ideal operating range of most electronic equipment – around 22 to 24 degrees Centigrade. But as was the case this Summer – when a temperature of 37.4C was recorded near Heathrow – there can be significant exceptions.

So, as the outside temperatures go up, cooling systems within data centres have to work harder and harder to keep pace if they are not optimised for the thermal load – and the resulting problems may not become evident until there is a really hot day. When these types of extremes occur – faults, failures and overloads compound and cascade. And in extreme cases, this can lead to corrupted databases, and loss of data which may take many months to sort out.

Air conditioning is a good example here of how problems can compound. Most office buildings now have air conditioning, and these units do little work and consume little power when the outside air temperature is below the required office environment temperature. But, as the outside temperatures goes up, the air conditioning units have to do more and more work, and then they consume more and more electrical power.

When a new air conditioner is installed, there is no obligation on anyone to tell the electricity supply company about it, so no-one knows about the extra load until a really hot day – when the power company’s breakers overload and trip out. One example being a failure in July 2006 which caused Oxford Street to shut down, much to the rage of the retail community. This type of situation has a huge effect on companies whose IT equipment is based on site, and that do not have any kind of backup cooling systems, or backup power systems for that matter! If there is enough demand and not enough supply, the electricity company will selectively switch off areas to match the two, which potentially puts everyone at risk.

So what is to be done? There are two main paths to resilience and reliability – the first of which is to build a complete data centre area on site. And that involves those Uninterruptable Power Supply systems I mentioned before (which must be duplicated for reliability) plus on-site diesel generators, (which must also be duplicated for reliability) and the installation of a complete cooling system – specified to cool the maximum load expected during the lifetime of the equipment. And yes, you’ve guessed it, this too must be duplicated so that cooling can continue without interruption during faults or maintenance.

All of which makes the second option far more appealing – outsourcing your requirements to a professional third-party colocation data centre. A professional facility, where all this is handled daily, where duplicated diesel generators are the norm, and where duplicated cooling and connectivity are everyday matters. That is what most business are now doing, and why the data centre industry has continued to grow over the last few years, even during the economic downturn.



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