Infrastructure > Hardware

A data centre in the bunker

Guardian Government Published 14 July 2011

A data centre in the bunker

Buckinghamshire county council has installed new data centre technology in an old nuclear shelter

Buckinghamshire county council has provided an interesting lesson in property rationalisation in setting up its new data centre in a nuclear shelter, making use of an obsolete space without putting a big dent in its capital expenditure budget. But the choice of site raised a number of problems that have demanded a thoughtful approach and a sophisticated infrastructure architecture to overcome.

The need for the new centre came from two factors. One was a need for a facility to extend the Bucks Grid for Learning (BucksGFL) wide area broadband network. It connects more than 95% of the county's schools to the internet through the Joint Academic Network (Janet), and its servers are hosted in the county network centre in Aylesbury. The other was to improve the council's disaster recovery (DR) capability and the resilience of IT services.

The council had four computer rooms, retro-fitted in buildings dating from 1929 and 1960, but the addition of extra servers placed this arrangement under strain. "We have no idea what weight the floors in the building can support, though we can be certain that the building was not designed to accommodate the floor loading requirements of some modern, high density IT equipment enclosures," says Neil Knowlton, the council's central operations manager. There were also issues around energy efficiency and carbon footprint, with wall mounted computer room air conditioners and no automated method for monitoring energy use.

Knowlton points to other factors that had to be taken into account in building a new facility: "From a data management point of view, we needed to facilitate a migration away from the use of back-up tapes which were being stored in a secure warehouse, and onto a modern disc storage solution which we could host ourselves. As regards to our DR capability, testing revealed that our ability to recover from outages could not be guaranteed. Our service provider was contracted to provide a portable data centre with hardware and an operating system in place. However, we would need to rebuild the servers ourselves and this was dependent upon the availability of our engineers.

"We're running over 250 physical and virtual servers to provision applications from finance and HR, to libraries, education, social services and planning. Prioritising recovery was also an issue since some of the applications can only withstand a few hours' outage. With no predefined RPO (recovery point objective), we just could not tell how long it would take to recover, which was obviously not a satisfactory situation with so much dependence upon IT."

While the council had the option of the nuclear shelter to house the new data centre, it required the installation of a new sub-station for power supplies, and the ceiling height of just 2.4m meant that it could not build a raised floor.

"In order to maximise the efficiency of the room, we had predetermined that segregation of hot and cool air in our new data centre was a priority and we decided that we could best achieve this by aisle containment," Knowlton says. "Irrespective of the data centre's hard floor, we decided that APC's InfraStruxure architecture with a hot aisle containment system was the best infrastructure solution for the sort of state-of-the-art, high density and highly managed environment we set out to build."

Features of the set-up include 11 server cabinets, two network cabinets for mixed densities ranging from 1-20kW per cabinet, and an APC Symmetra PX 160kW uninterruptible power supply system in N+1 configuration, in which components have at least one independent back-up. It is managed by the company's InfraStuxure Central software, integrated with a Netbotz Rack Monitor 450 to monitor outputs. Cooling is provided by six InRow chilled water units, and temperature and humidity controls are fitted in all equipment cabinets.

Chilled water pipework has been installed in the centre to enable any future scaling up of the cooling capacity. But Knowlton says that if necessary most of the infrastructure can be moved to a new location in the future.

He adds that the software enables his team to monitor power and cooling at all times, manage inventory, calculate power usage effectiveness and obtain daily information on energy utilisation. "This is all important stuff, as we want to be able to demonstrate the value of the new facility through the efficiencies it brings in energy use, space utilisation and agility for the future," he says.

The new data centre has been built to meet dynamic load requirements and the need for system efficiency in a high density and highly virtualised IT network. It should also provide the environment for the extension of BucksGfL functions and improve the resilience of the council's IT services.

Knowlton concludes: "In recent years we've introduced new ways of working to improve the way we deliver our services. IT has been central to facilitating many of these changes.

"For example, we've deployed a good and secure remote access system to provide an 'at desk' environment for home working via broadband, using encrypted laptops. In our data centres, we already collaborate with local district councils to increase utilisation and therefore the return on investment from these assets.

"By building a state-of-the-art data centre we have added essential infrastructure that will serve our requirements for the next decade as well as offering the opportunity for increased cooperation with local partners."

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