Chasing energy efficiency


3 March 2015
Data centre insights1

With a hot and humid climate year round and customers none too keen to take risks with higher operating temperatures, keeping data centres cooler than cool enough is an ongoing challenge for Singapore’s data centre industry. Energy efficiency, not surprisingly, continues to be one of the key issues facing Singapore’s data centre industry, say many working in the sector or related fields. Another is the need to ensure that data centre facilities are able to keep up with service delivery requirements and evolving business needs.

George Slessman, chief executive officer of colocation and cloud services provider IO, said the regular climate in Singapore is already a challenge for data centres that operate here, with year-round heat and humidity making data centre cooling very energy-intensive. And climate change is making this an even larger issue. “From dry spells to forest fires, environmental issues are growing. With Singapore leading Southeast Asia as a data centre hub, this is very much an issue that will affect the industry in 2015.”

Singapore’s average daily temperature is about 28 deg C, which is above the 27 deg C recommended by Ashrae (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) for data centre operation. The Ashrae guidelines refer to the temperature of inlet air, which is air drawn into the computer systems to ensure that they do not overheat and fail.

According to the 2014 Green Data Centre Technology Roadmap prepared by i3 Solutions Group for the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, about 37 per cent of the total energy consumed by data centres in Singapore is used to cool IT equipment.

In an earlier interview with ConvergenceAsia, Ed Ansett, chairman of the IT and critical facilities consulting company, said the issue of cooling-related energy consumption is exacerbated by the fact that many data centres maintain their temperatures at much lower levels than the recommended guidelines.  Ansett reckoned that about 70-80 per cent of data centres here are currently operating at 23-24 deg C. and that each deg C difference in temperature translates into 10 per cent difference in savings, in terms of energy used in cooling.

Statistics from the National Research Foundation indicate that data centres in Singapore already account for 7 per cent of the country's electrical energy consumption compared with the global average of 2 per cent, and this could grow as the industry expands.

The country’s Smart Nation push and burgeoning free public Wi-Fi will generate incredible amounts of data that need to be stored and processed, said Shaun Woodhouse, sales director, APAC, Digital Realty.

Singapore’s data centres also handle over 60 per cent of capacity for Southeast Asia - a region whose data output shows no signs of abating. Mobility and the clamour to make data available anytime and anywhere are some of the main trends impacting data centres, said Mathew Kong, country manager (Singapore), Emerson Network Power.

“Aside from the popularity of social media and the demand for availability of data-intensive content such as videos, the ASEAN region is also expected to see double digit growth in mobile e-commerce. Of course, data centres will be at the heart of all these mobile interconnections.”

The sustained high demand for data centres, together with the need to handle the high density computing platforms powering cloud, big data, mobility and virtualisation, will continue to drive up energy consumption in this sector, he added.

Matters are not helped by inefficiencies in energy usage. According to James Young, director, Data Centre, Asia Pacific, CommScope, partial studies have shown that the energy used to cool data centres considerably exceeds the energy channelled into performing useful work such as running IT equipment. The efficiency gap, which continues to widen, could impact the competitive landscape for Singapore’s data centres, reflecting higher costs for services.

In his opinion, the innovative solution to the energy problem might not be based solely on technology. “We could, as a start, simply challenge the accepted argument that Singapore’s climate limits its design options and requires expending large amounts of energy on cooling.”

This will require a coordinated effort by IT and facility operators (including enterprises and cloud operators), who can take advantage of newer equipment that is designed to operate at higher temperatures with higher humidity.  Such equipment is much more suited to operating data centres in Singapore, as they drastically reduce the amount of cooling needed to operate those IT devices, he said.

Echoing this view, Pankaj Sharma, vice president, Asia Pacific and Japan, Schneider Electric IT Business, said  while energy is typically one of the largest operating expenses for business, it is controllable. “Making smart choices about energy efficient equipment and having an energy management programme in place can lend to savings of up to 30 per cent in their operations,” he said.

However, the reality is that there is a significant proportion of legacy IT systems and aging data centres in this part of the world, and modernising them will not be easy. According to analyst firm IDC, about 20 per cent of all data centres in the Asia Pacific region are more than eight years old and not ready to handle modern computing demands.

One solution would be to shift IT resources to a third-party facility, said Shaun Woodhouse, sales director, APAC, Digital Realty. Making a case for outsourcing, he said “by far the most effective option is to take advantage of an external, purpose-built and managed data centre”. In this way, the need for a large capex investment is removed and space and power can be scaled as future demands grow. “Such facilities have also been designed to be energy efficient, thus keeping opex costs lower. Infrastructure equipment is constantly maintained and upgraded as computing technology evolves.”