Q&A: An Inside Look at a State-of-the-Art Green Data Center

IT is looking to cut costs. One way is to outsource data center tasks. We take a closer look at a state-of-the-art site in Europe to learn what features are most important to IT and how investments in renewable resources are paying off.

IT is trying to cut costs any way it can. A popular approach is to outsource data center tasks. From security advantages to cutting floor space and energy consumption (especially when expansion is no longer possible), there are many advantages of moving some of your data center tasks off-site. We spoke Nick Razey, the CEO of Europe’s largest data center management provider (and the fourth largest in the world), NGD, to learn what state-of-the-art features enterprises are looking for (and why) in remote data centers and how NGD’s investments in renewable resources are paying off.

Enterprise Strategies: Tell us a little about the NGD Europe data center. When was it established, how big is it (number of customers, number of square feet, etc.) and what kind of workloads are you running?

Nick Razey: Next Generation Data (NGD) Europe is located just outside Newport in South Wales and opened its doors in March 2010. Our first tenants were British Telecom and Logica. The space is a former LG semi-conductor plant and has 750,000 square feet of floor space, or enough to house about 19,000 server racks. Back in November, we announced the build-out of our third floor -- a giant containerized computing hall offering 140,000 square feet (net technical services) reinforced floor area with all the space, power, cooling, and high-speed communication links necessary for meeting the most demanding cloud deployments. DataCenterKnowlege ranks NGD as the fourth largest data center in the world and it tops the list in size for facilities based in Europe.

Immediately following the London bombings on 7/7, my business partner Simon Taylor (Chairman of NGD) and I identified a gap in the market for better serving the growing number of global organizations requiring modern, highly scalable outsourced data center facilities in Europe. Organizations were looking for world-class facilities in more secure locations than the traditional options typically clustered in and around large metro areas such as London. We thought, “Why subject your data center operations to so much risk when attractive, rural locations are available -- offering the same, or better, space, power, security and cooling requirements, but at much lower costs.”

We took cues from what was happening in the American market, as companies were abandoning the ‘server hugger’ mentality of the past, leaving their city-based data centers for rural locations. The Wales location was ideally situated -- offering the advantages of a low-risk, remote location that’s within a two-hour drive from London.

In addition to the security advantages a remote location offers, we’re able to provide our clients extreme real estate and energy costs savings compared to our London and North American counterparts. For instance, real estate leasing costs at NGD Europe typically run at half the price of London and U.S. facilities. Because we have an on-site power substation that connects directly to the national grid, NGD boasts a massive 180 MVA of resilient power supply. That’s enough to power a city the size of Charleston, South Carolina at a mere fraction of the price for power connection in London.

The choice of server equipment isn’t really our interest -- we supply the building, power, security and connectivity needed to run your data center operations. As far as capacity, NGD is ahead of plan with our anchor tenants BT, Logica, and a major American technology company that we aren’t at liberty to name (just yet) -- all of which are planning to build additional halls this year. It will likely take another five years to reach full capacity. In the meantime, we’re seeing a very aggressive pipeline of new business from large, Web-based businesses in the United States seeking primary and co-location facilities in Europe.

Green IT is a goal here in the U.S., with companies looking at how they can use technologies such as virtualization to get more with the same amount of power. NGD has gone a step further by using renewable energy. How much energy do you use, and what sources (wind, solar, etc.) are you using? Are such sources plentiful or did you have to cut special deals with utilities/governments to get enough power to drive your data center?

NGD showed its commitment to green data center practices in 2010 by being the first in Europe to get all of its energy from renewable source. We’re 100 percent renewable energy based.

For NGD, finding ways to remove heat and save energy is a top priority for the company and our tenants. It’s important that our facility meet all environmental certifications and rating systems like the International Organization for Standards ISO 14000 family that address various aspects of environmental management and BREEAM, the world’s leading design and assessment method for sustainable buildings. NGD achieved the ISO 14001 environmental management standard in early 2010 and has achieved a BREEAM ration of “Very Good.”

Cooling is also a critical component to our eco-friendly strategy. At NGD, aisle temperatures are regulated 24 hours and day, seven days a week to ensure servers are kept in optimum conditions. We’ve architected our computer room air conditioning (CRAC) system to be efficient as possible, by installing remote temperature sensors on each hall that can link to the CRAC system through infrared monitors. These sensors identify hot and cold spots, and where the temperature is naturally cooler, the CRAC system automatically reduces its focus on that particular area and concentrates on the sections that are warmer.

Because Wales has a median temperature of 42 degrees, we leverage free air whenever possible. When outside ambient temperatures are sufficiently cool the electrically powered chill systems can be switched off completely and external air channeled into the data halls to help cool the IT server racks -- thereby cutting energy consumption significantly.

We aggressively track and monitor energy consumption and use Schneider Electric for our power and cooling systems and management. The custom-built systems joined our PDUs and SCADA monitoring systems under a single, unified platform. A unified monitoring system gives us complete visibility into the building management system, the electronic management system, the PDUs and SCADA monitoring. This lets us closely monitor energy usage throughout the facility and quickly resolve issues if consumption is running at unexpected levels.

Other green practices in place at NGD include the use of solar energy and Energy Star equipment throughout; energy-efficient lighting with passive infared (PIR) devices that detect motion and then activate a switch to turn things on and off; and a comprehensive recycling program that includes construction, equipment, and waste recycling.

How was the data center funded?

NGD is self-funded and privately owned. We’ve secured significant debt finance facilities from Lombard, the asset finance arm of The Royal Bank of Scotland. It has always been our priority to maximize shareholder value and avoid taking any public offering or venture capital (VC) route too prematurely. We are prudent about reaching critical mass and top market value for the business. With our significant forecast growth for the coming three to five years, and bearing in mind the capital intensive nature of our type of business, such a time may not be too far away.

What drove your move to all renewable sources?

From the beginning, we sought out to build a first-class, carrier-neutral, next-generation data center that leveraged the latest advancements in technology, design, and energy efficiency. To this end, we entered into a long-term supply agreement with Smartest Energy, which sources all of NGD’s power from sustainable energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass.

We also understand the competitive nature of the wholesale data center market, and have looked to beat our London counterparts by offering far better rates across the board. We are always mindful of new ways to pass savings on to our clients including the maximum Climate Change Levy (CCL) discounts available under the UK government’s tax exemption program for energy intense industries.

We’ve found that being fully committed to green best practices is not only good for the environment, but also good for business. Green credentials are high on our customers’ list of requirements. With the enormous amounts of data storage and processing requirements brought on by the rise of mobile computing, Cloud-based services and social media, our anchor tenants and prospects are always looking for effective ways to keep costs down and supply abundant. Our power supply is many times larger than other facility in Europe and because we are connected to the national grid, we can ensure total control of power -- from grid to rack. This has enabled NGD to offer solutions with a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) as low as 1.2 where the industry average is 2, passing along savings of up to 40 percent in energy bills.

What problems did you encounter in establishing your data center? What mistakes did you make, and how would you advise colleagues facing a similar move to all-renewable energy? Most of the major hurdles we faced in getting the data center up and running were financially based. We were trying to get a business off the ground during one of the most economically uncertain times in history -- during the aftermath of the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks and the banking crisis that ensued a few years later.

Our business model is based on economies of scale. We operate within the wholesaler side of the market, so the minimum number of racks we’d consider is 100-150 racks. We have no ambitions to offer managed services because that would put us in direct competition with our customers.

What has been the reaction of customers?

This year NGD has secured significant long-term multimillion dollar tenancy agreements from a growing number of large European and North American organizations requiring custom-built data halls. These are being financed from a combination of our growing revenue stream, advance payments from new customers, further asset funding from outside (including Lombard as well as private shareholders).

We believe our growth trajectory is very strong. Increasingly, market surveys such as those from Jones Lang Lasalle, the international real-estate firm, have noted increasing demand in Europe for our type of rural-based data center model. Savvy businesses, as well as hosting providers, are getting the message that out-of-town data center facilities have substantial bottom-line benefits thanks to low-cost fiber and increasingly sophisticated remote diagnostics.

The explosion in demand for Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and cloud (private and public) witnessed in 2011, plus today’s immediate and longer-term Big Data challenges, will no doubt drive demand from enterprise and IT service providers for even greater data center capacity. Data center operators like NGD that offer large amounts of secure, scalable space with the power and resilience to match high-density computing requirements -- at a fraction of the cost -- will continue to be a very attractive alternative to building and maintaining your own data center location.

Growth is inevitable, and we have to accommodate that growth. For example, British Telecom, our anchor tenant, is expanding. They have contracted for a second hall of 10,000 square feet, having outgrown their initial 9,600 square feet, 380 rack, custom-built data hall in just two years time.

What best practices have you discovered from your day-to-day operations and in planning for growth?

From the beginning and throughout the build of halls, we’ve partnered with blue chip contractors for initial mechanical and electrical design and ongoing maintenance and to create the infrastructure for our state-of-the-art power and cooling systems.

Other best practices include the adoption of standards for the occupational health and safety of our facility and the wellbeing of the people who work within NGD’s walls. These include ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001; ISO 27001 (security best practices from a physical and IT data management perspective); ISO 9001 Quality Management certifications; and BREEAM environmental compliance.

Nick Razey is CEO of Next Generation Data, Europe’s largest Tier-3 data center located in Wales. A 25-year veteran of the telecommunications industry, Nick is a Physics graduate, holds an MBA, and is a Chartered Engineer. After 10 years in Cable & Wireless, he co-founded Interoute and was involved in the planning of i-21 dark fiber network throughout Europe. He can be reached at nrazey@nextgenerationdata.com.

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