How many cyclists does it take to run a data centre?

I was on my watt bike this morning – a tortuous device designed to make you a stronger cyclist – when my mind started to wander. Given that I work for a data centre services provider, naturally, I started to think about how many cyclists it would take to run a rack of servers...

With a little bit of imagination and some basic maths, the answer can roughly be calculated based on FTP – not File Transfer Protocol, but Functional Threshold Power. In the world of cycling, FTP represents your ability to sustain the highest possible power output over 60 minutes and a recent test gave my result at 200 watts i.e. 0.2 kW. If you were relying on cyclists to run your data centre, it would take about five of them at a similar standard to me to power a couple of servers for an hour. After that you would need some fresh legs and another set of five cyclists – and so on. So five cyclists per hour = 120 per day.

In order to build in some resilience you would need a batch of reserve cyclists and somewhere to keep them to make sure they were healthy (i.e. maintain and test them). You would also need to make sure that all of the bikes were up to scratch and that you had “cold standby” bikes. If you wanted cyclists with a higher FTP than me then you would need fewer of them, but they are bigger to store and harder to source and maintain – particularly if we are talking about the pros. You see where I’m going with this!

I am sure other cyclists out there will be able to think of a million and one other potential failures – all of which would have an impact the ability of your business to continue functioning if you were relying on them to provide back-up power. However, I thought it might be amusing to imagine a room for your “back-up power” that contains lots of cyclists waiting for their turn to “power cycle” (ha! got that one in…)

I wanted to get you thinking about what actually needs to be considered when you are trying to create an “always on” business IT infrastructure. Bear in mind that for this blog I am only talking about power; there is so much more that goes into creating a truly resilience environment, but power really is at the centre of it. There is a lot you can do on-premise – with some air-conditioning units and an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS), but what if there’s a power cut and your UPS fails. Or if your air-conditioning decides to give up the ghost in the middle of the hottest day of the year and your hard disks start to melt? Are you testing these things to make sure they will work when you really need them – and what is the contingency if they don’t work? Spare ones? They cost money and I know a lot of businesses don’t even want to stretch the budget to cover a backup internet line, let alone the investment that dual UPS and N+1 air conditioning units would require.

You must then ask yourselves whether it is wiser to consider keeping your business critical equipment in a data centre; a building where power, amongst other things, is guaranteed so that you know your servers will always be on…? Data centres not only have N+1 power (a set of generators plus a spare one), they often have N+N (gen set plus a whole spare gen set) with the same resilience applied to the UPS so they can provide you with the comfort of 100% uptime. If the mains power goes off, the UPS kicks in and has the ability to run well past the point that the generators take over the power load. If any of those things fail – there is a back-up to take over and you will have no idea that anything has happened because it has been designed to be seamless.

Your data centre supplier will think of things that you might not have even thought of – after 12 years in this industry, I have seen data centres evolve to provide comfort to even the most paranoid risk assessor. Only the other day whilst on a data centre tour, we were discussing the fact that we have two separate diesel tanks on site to power the N+N gen sets with separate fuel contracts to remove the risk of a contaminant affecting both supplies. “I would never have even thought of that…” the customer said, somewhat in awe.

So there it is – we think of it so you don’t have to and you can rest assured that your business servers will always be supplied with the energy and compliance they need to work for your business.

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