Next Generation Data: Time for Enlightenment - Simon Taylor

Time for enlightenment

By Simon Taylor 01 | April | 2016

NGD’s Chairman Simon Taylor sheds some light on the potential risks to data posed by looming power shortages

Last summer the National Grid was widely criticised when it admitted it had been forced to buy in £36.5m worth of new emergency capacity to deal with peak demand the winter. It said the margin of spare capacity for this winter could be just 1.2%, the lowest level for 10 years as old coal and even gas-fired power stations are retired and await replacement by new generation facilities.

Fingers crossed it appears all the lights have stayed on so far. Worryingly, however, the problem looks set to continue. According to a former CEO of npower, it is likely that margins will be as tight this year and for several winters to come. He issued his warning this week during a conference held by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

This made me think back to a Channel 4 TV ‘docudrama’ from a couple of years ago called ‘Blackout’. The fictional story weaved around a cyber terror attack on the National Grid which very quickly sparked the meltdown of our national - IT-dependent - critical infrastructure swiftly followed by civil unrest and general mayhem all around.   Perhaps it was a bit over the top but ‘make believe’ TV entertainment like this and ‘real-life’ pronouncements such as the above should serve as a wake-up call for any business still in the dark about the very real risks that power problems pose to their data and business continuity.

Let’s not forget many data centres still in service today were built in the last century when energy supply was more abundant and cheaper, and before the London Docklands bombings of 1996 and New York’s 9/11. But here in the modern interconnected IoT world, IT touches and controls the availability of almost everything we do including energy supply, logistics, retail, petrol stations and all communications links. This means a much weightier responsibility on our data centres for not only facilitating and assuring trade and commerce, but also playing a pivotal role in national and international security.

In the UK the traditional data centre heartlands in London and the South East may suffer most if there are power capacity problems due to sheer over demand, putting more emphasis on data centres outside major metro areas that may offer a more plentiful and reliable supply. And if ensuring reliable power supply wasn’t enough data centres also need to be as secure as possible from physical ingress and cyber-attack - our global dependence on data centres makes them prime targets for terrorism and criminal activity.

Fortunately there are increasing numbers of modern facilities in the UK to choose from. NGD is a major out of town example with access to enormous amounts of power and its own sub-station having been built on a site originally intended for use by a major semiconductor manufacturer.

Even if the IT operations and data held in your data centre are not seen as directly mission critical to national security, the potential catastrophic effect of power outages on resilience and the subsequent inability to meet SLAs cannot be underestimated. Power outages already threaten data centres on an almost daily basis.


Take more control over your power:

  • Ensure sufficient data centre power supply and communications redundancy; install adequate diesel generator and battery power back up – test these regularly. Tier 3 (or greater) facilities will optimise the layers of infrastructure and other fail safe systems necessary for robust business continuity
  • Use a modern out of town data centre with access to more plentiful and reliable supplies. If a direct grid connection isn’t available try and be as close as possible – the less pylon hops the better will reduce the likelihood of spikes and outages
  • Check your facility or operator is as energy efficient as possible – check the official PUE ratings and look for evidence of Energy Management Systems, best practice aisle containment and latest cooling systems being deployed    
  • Deploy robust and comprehensive security measures capable of resisting both physical and cyber attack; locating to lower risk areas well away from large urban populations, flightpaths and flood plains will also reduce security and other major risk factors