Features: October 9th, 2009

By Jeff Thomas

Healthcare technology is likely to be an area of cost cutting even though frontline services will be spared the axe as Ministers seek to reduce budgets. Doing things differently is a key approach being used across the public sector to find efficiencies and healthcare technology is no exception. The author describes how data centre outsourcing can not only reduce costs, but also bring a range of other benefits.

Healthcare technology is under tremendous pressure from three often conflicting drivers: the huge pressure to cut costs, the growing demand for reliable secure ICT solutions in healthcare and the consequential need for bigger infrastructures and more power. Within this triangle of conflicting priorities, the procurement of data centre space is becoming one of the most important decisions IT procurers will make, given the energy they consume and their relative cost.

Cost cutting pressure

The McKinsey report last month acutely demonstrates the pressure on cost that procurement teams face. The UK media has recently focused on the potential savings needed in health sector staffing but there is equal pressure to cut ICT costs. At the same time pressure is building to reduce CO2 emissions to meet the Government’s own targets and lead the world in its response to the sustainability challenges we face.

As well as the cost drivers and the pressure to ‘go green’, the health service also has a responsibility to ensure reliability and data security. Given all these pressures, are rational decisions about data centre infrastructure being made, decisions that will be sustainable over the long term?

Doing it differently

Traditionally large organisations, conscious of their security obligations, have tended to opt to build their own data centres to house their data. These provide them with the comfort of knowing they can access the facility whenever they want, change their configuration at will, and rest safe in the knowledge that if somebody else’s power trips out, it won’t affect them. The owner-occupied model of data centre provision has given corporate and government organisations the assurance that any power outages or operational failures are their own responsibility and no-one else’s. Traditionally it has also offered the best standards of security, in that only they control access to the facility.

This is all very well, but today’s cost-cutting driver means that investing vast sums of capital in building new data centres is becoming unviable. But the demand doesn’t decrease. According to research from IDC¹, by 2020 we are expected to have more than 122 million servers worldwide to hold our data, up from 18 million in 2008. This is a growth rate of 18% per annum. New technologies in healthcare, such as advances in remote diagnostics and wireless monitoring systems, will increase dependency on ICT and in turn the processing, data storage and communications capacity.

So how can procurement resolve the cost problem while retaining control over availability and security and delivering an environmentally sustainable solution? The only business model that makes sense from a financial (and environmentally sustainable) perspective is an outsourcing model, but an outsourcing model with a difference. Outsourcing your data centre means that you transfer the responsibility for capital expenditure and, through market competition, you ensure operating expenses are controlled. But traditionally, this hasn’t necessarily provided the performance of an owner-occupied data centre or the high levels of sustainability required today. Most outsourced data centre offerings involve sharing space and infrastructure with other customers. This creates risk and – more likely – the prospect of availability being compromised by someone else, yet impacting your own performance, with little or no regard for energy efficiency or sources.

The future for public sector data centres must lie in the supply of dedicated, scalable infrastructure (power and cooling) and dedicated space but on an outsourced basis – i.e. a discrete, modular, self contained solution in a data centre designed to meet the requirements of a low carbon economy and run by a specialist company with operational excellence at its heart. It is only this model that can begin to address the security and availability concerns at the same time as addressing the cost and sustainability issues of the sector. In other words, it is like having your own data centre but without the capital cost.

Securing sustainability

Of course the other key driver is sustainability. The Government’s own target to reduce CO2 emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 puts a huge onus on the health service to cut its own emissions.

Investment in IT should be made in such a way as to reduce emissions. IT can, and does, enable services that save fossil fuel and reduce emissions. When purchasing data centre capacity from a third party supplier, there are three key elements to consider: reducing energy consumption; increasing the efficiency of processes; and sourcing renewable energy. On this last point, caution is needed – data centre electrical load profiles are generally not compatible with on-site renewable power generation.

One efficiency measure in the data centre industry is the Power Usage Effectiveness coefficient or PUE. This is the ratio of power entering the facility compared to power used by the IT kit inside it. The closer the PUE is to 1 the higher the efficiency of the system, although a PUE of exactly 1 cannot be achieved. While PUE should not be used to compare one data centre to another, as there are other factors to consider in determining the sustainability credentials of a data centre provider, it is nevertheless a useful starting point. Older data centres tend to run at a PUE of 3 and above. The UK industry average is 2.2. Later this year a new data centre campus will open at Spring Park, Corsham, which will offer a design PUE of just 1.45.

The rural setting of the campus means the proportion of free cooling available is already over 60%. Future plans include an integrated energy management system that will allow waste energy to be recycled through absorption chillers into the naturally cool subterranean environment under the campus. Once deployed, the data centres at Spring Park will achieve a design PUE of 1.15 to 1.2 using 100% free cooling.

While PUE is a key metric to use when assessing a data centre supplier, there are other sustainability measures that often get overlooked.

Data centres have generators for use if the main electricity supply should fail at any time. Most data centres use batteries to back up the power while the generators are switched on. However, these batteries have a relatively short life and usually end up in a landfill. The alternative and sustainable option is to use a kinetic UPS system that provides a source of autonomous power, in the event of the mains supply failure and until the generator starts a few seconds later. This means that there are no batteries in the UPS. This is a far more sustainable option.

These are some of the key considerations when weighing up data centre options. Too often sustainability is treated as an afterthought. The time has come for the public sector to make sure that it is placed at heart of their IT procurement, both from a cost and an environmental point of view. When looking at data centres this means selecting a data centre provider who embraces best practice and sustainable first principles in the design, construction, engineering, operation and end of life of their data centres.

Choosing your data centre provider is not an easy decision to make but it is probably among the most important decisions an organisation will make in terms of IT performance and its environmental impact.

Jeff Thomas is CEO at Ark Continuity.
¹Source: IDC 2000-2010 Server Forecast