Smarter infrastructure for smarter operations

Data centres lie at the heart of the digital economy, a market worth around $22.1 trillion (according to latest estimates from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), and are an indispensable part of the IoT (Internet of Things), connecting embedded devices everywhere from transport and buildings through to industry and power infrastructure, helping provide greater comfort, safety, efficiency, and productivity. Ciaran Flanagan, ABB’s head of global data centres, explains how the Internet of Things (IoT) can transform how data centres operate

This ever growing number of connected devices will create even greater demand for data centre services, but the data centre itself cannot escape the grip of IoT, nor should it. So let’s discuss how IoT can transform how we operate the data centre. 

Capacity needs to be elastic

Perhaps this kind of capability will lead to more efficient data centres? We think so and here’s why:  we design data centres with capacity headroom in mind because humans are poor at predicting demand, but this headroom is not free, as nothing is free. What we really want is elastic infrastructure …we want to be able to turn on and off capacity in response to demand signals. We want dynamic and we want fast, what we don’t want is infrastructure lit up to just sit idling. We want utility and we only want to pay for what we use. We will not get significantly better at predicting anytime soon, so we need an infrastructure that can adapt to changing demand … with ease and simplicity. To do this we need deep component level visibility and control, this is the basic physical layer required to make the emerging operations software work better – think Decathlon® for data center infrastructure management (DCIM).

Some practical examples of where you should expect to find IoT ‘ready’ infrastructure is in the humble circuit breaker, to enable remote management of loads, with perhaps the addition of Ekip functionality to selectively decide which loads are important when you go to emergency power. Other infrastructure might include your site grid connections, pumps, chillers, your UPS and even transformers. All elements of the power and cooling train need to be intelligent. This will lead to better visibility, less human error and more predictable operation.

So, how does IoT offer practical solutions to real challenges? Let’s break it down

Not all loads are equal … at different times of the day or month some workloads will be more critical than others, perhaps there is a hierarchy of workload importance. With IoT enabled and intelligent power distribution, you can decide where the power comes from, whether direct from the grid, from a UPS or perhaps even a roof mounted solar panel. With smart infrastructure you can now match the load to the generation and better utilise really critical power capacity. This leads to a reduced energy consumption of up to 30% and better use of assets.  IoT capable devices and systems are essential for this type of control. 

Plan your downtime - With deep component visibility across the IT and Facilities domain you have the potential to real-time query the performance of power and cooling delivery, many electrical and mechanical devices now have the potential to act as sensors for your overall system. They can locally or even remotely detect issues that might point to an unplanned downtime, a recurring power quality issue or even unauthorised logins or interference. Furthermore, being connected allows a greater population of devices to build a baseline for performance and predictive maintenance.  An IoT network will ensure all devices can communicate on their operational condition and this will lead to better uptime and lower maintenance costs.

Ape your customer … IT is the customer and they are getting really good at dynamic load management. If the critical power and cooling infrastructure wants to get more efficient it needs to become equally dynamic. When racks or rows go dark the ‘south of the rack’ critical infrastructure needs to idle too, it needs tightly coupled communication and it needs to react quickly. Ideally, it would be incrementally scalable to precisely follow workloads, IoT is an outstanding medium to provide real-time feedback on system capacity.

Automate the operations … previously there were walk-arounds, checklists and lockout procedures. When something unusual happened there would often be a technician (or more wisely two) dispatched to a distant plant room to see what might be happening. This can be time consuming, dangerous and often fail to deliver a comprehensive opinion on what might be the issue … and let’s not even cite the hackneyed research about all issues being human error. With more intelligent infrastructure your options to interrogate and modify become faster, broader, safer and less error prone. The case for automation is clear, now you have the tools and connectivity with IoT capable devices and systems.

You now have the potential to gather lots of data, probably too much for human to interpret, but perhaps the data contains patterns that correlate with events …predictive operations. This data has useful information and it will be the basis of competitive advantage for those organisations able to use this information to lower their operational cost. The interpretation of the data across a broad usage base leads to informed decision making in both operations and maintenance. Ultimately the goal is to make your operations more competitive because if you don’t your competitors will.

Security is still important – an area of significant concern is that when all of this previously isolated equipment becomes connected it will lead to increased risk of cyber-security breaches. If you run a data centre you need an information security protocol, regardless of your IoT adoption. It is absolutely the case that a comprehensive automation and connectivity strategy without considering cyber-security would be fool hardy, but we suggest the same information and cyber-security best practice still applies. In some cases operators may allow no external network access, perhaps read only access or just specific protocols, but best practice in network deployment is critical and having an isolated facility network, consolidation points and a very small number of protocols will significantly reduce the risk. 

You cannot predict the future, but you can be prepared for it…

All of the elements of the data centre facilities infrastructure now have the ability to communicate and to develop peer to peer relationships. This is the practical application of IoT in data centre operations. Better control and automation will minimise stranded power, use less energy and lead to better uptime, everything from a server to a breaker comes with integrated communications and sensors. You have unprecedented visibility into how the critical infrastructure is operating and how it is performing in relation to efficiency, maintenance and capacity metrics. You can light up or shut down chunks of capacity with ease and you can now analyse how your overall system responds to changes. You can learn.

So don’t try to predict shifts and changes in demand, count on them