Tackling London’s data centre crunch

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Inside the Enterprise: "In suburbia, where the suburbs meet Utopia." The 80s pop lyric by The Pet Shop Boys could equally be an advertisement for a new generation of data centres.

And, just as commuters moved out to Metroland in the 1920s in search of more space, so businesses with data-intensive operations are moving out of town.

Central London, and especially the areas around the City, are running out of suitable data centre space. Power, too, is in short supply.

Data centres are drawing more power as businesses need more storage and data processing capacity. As importantly, the power requirements per square foot or square metre have also increased, as manufacturers have designed denser form factors for servers, especially blades.

The list of new data centre locations hardly makes for a glamorous itinerary: Slough, Woking, Redhill, Croydon and Chessington have been pressed into service as data centre hubs.

Although some developments such as more power-efficient processors, solid-state storage and better power management are helping, they are not able to fully offset the demand for more power. According to one data centre provider, the key 11kV power networks around the City of London are already close to saturation.

Power companies are investing in higher-capacity, 33kV electricity supplies but these are not currently serving buildings running high-capacity computing systems. As a result, both data centre providers and individual businesses are looking outside the capital for more flexible data centre space, and making use of the increased availability of "dark fibre" communications to link these data centres back to the City.

The list of new data centre locations hardly makes for a glamorous itinerary: Slough, Woking, Redhill, Croydon and Chessington have been pressed into service as data centre hubs. London's Docklands is already too densely packed with data centres, it seems.

Moving out to the suburbs brings other advantages too. Aside from the cleaner air that has attracted commuters over the decades, the suburbs benefit from good public transport links and so, relatively easy access to qualified staff. Access to staff can be a barrier for businesses locating data centres in rural locations. Rents remain lower than in city centres, and by moving to the edges of cities, companies can also improve their disaster recovery capabilities, by replicating data at the remote site.

Doing real-time data replication or running fully mirrored systems does impose some other constraints on data centres and again, this favours the suburbs. Although London faces increasing competition from good value and well-connected data centre space in locations such as Amsterdam and Dublin, these locations are too far from the City for real-time mirroring and truly redundant systems.

Such technology is increasingly demanded by telecoms and financial services firms, and in some cases, synchronous replication is a regulatory requirement, according to Robert Bath, vice president of Engineering for Europe at Digital Realty, a data centre developer, which has just opened a new site in Chessington. For such systems to work properly, latency needs to be at or below 1.3ms. With today's fibre technology, that equates to a distance between data centres of around 80-100kms.

Technology will continue to push latency down, and allow longer-distance links. And with businesses increasingly moving data to the cloud or providing services to consumers, who could be anywhere in the UK or even the world, there will be scope to run some IT much further from head office.

But if London is to continue to compete in high-tech, data-intensive sectors such as banking, IT departments will need to learn to love suburbia.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.