When Things get Hot

 Anybody who works in IT today will know that when important IT Services fail, IT staff feel the heat. When they are working normally you don’t normally get thanked. Let’s face it – when did you last write to the Electricity Company to thank them for such a wonderful job delivering electricity? So, for us this situation to some extent goes with the job, but I’ll use this Blog today to say thanks to a number of RGU IT staff who did a great job over the weekend of 17th November. 

We have two main server rooms from which we deliver our main IT services. Servers in each room are running all the time so that we can use the full capacity for all of our services. If one room fails, however, we can continue to run critical services from the other. 

Now, servers pump out lots of heat and one of the most common causes of failure is around cooling. That’s exactly what happened to one of our rooms in November – one of the cooling units failed, and then the second cooling unit, now under a heavier load, started to wobble. The temperature climbed rapidly and it wasn’t long before some of the servers started to automatically shut down to protect themselves – a nightmare scenario for IT Staff. 

IT Services and Estates staff managed to get the temperature under control, but it was clear that the air conditioning had to be repaired quickly and that meant having to shut down ALL the cooling for several hours. IT Services staff prepared a plan of action, and worked over the weekend to move essential services into the other computer room ahead of the shutdown. When the time came, the cooling was shut down as were most of the servers in the room. We were able to continue running the most essential University IT services throughout the day from the backup room and once the air conditioning was repaired things were back to normal fairly quickly. 

We were able to do this because for several years we have been building resilience into our overall IT Architectures. We have dual communications links, dual server rooms, and we use technologies that allow us to move services from one room to the other, and keep copies of critical data in both computer rooms. 

It all paid off that weekend, and indeed it has paid off on a number of occasions. More than once, we have had some kind of problem with our network links, or servers or server rooms, but you would never have known because we were able to keep essential services running. 

So, my thanks to all the IT Staff who make this possible!

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Green ICT

Hopefully you will have read the recent edition of RGU’s “Green Times” – if not you can read it here.

It includes an article which shows the environmental impact of PC’s being left switched on and what you can do to help – by turning your PC off when it is not in use. What is less obvious to our staff and students is the impact of “behind the scenes” ICT. Way back in 2007, the Gartner Group estimated that globally information and communications technology contributes to some 2% of total carbon emissions.

That’s about the same as the aviation industry. A quarter of the ICT related emissions come from data centres running servers, which then require further energy to keep them cool. . .

We have many servers running in our server rooms on Campus, and the rooms themselves are nothing like as efficient as modern datacentre standards. We expend much more energy on cooling than we need to. Aberdeen University is in a similar situation, so are Aberdeen College and Banff and Buchan College (although they have recently upgraded their server room), and at the moment we all run our data centres independently from each other. Over the past 3 years we have been working hard to see how we could collaborate to reduce all our costs and carbon emissions.

This culminated in an agreement earlier this year to move into a shared datacentre by upgrading space in the University of Aberdeen. It’s currently under construction, and will be ready by the Spring of 2013. Initially, it will become the primary datacentre for Aberdeen University, Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen College, with Banff and Buchan using the facility at a later date.

The environmental impact of this will be substantial. We estimate that the total power consumption of all the servers from the 3 institutions is 220kWh. In our own separate, old, data centres at the moment we probably use the same amount of power again just to keep the servers cool (220 kWh is roughly 22 electric cookers, with everything switched on, running all the time – just picture it). CO2 emissions from all that will come to 2030 metric tonnes per annum.

By packing all these servers into one modern datacentre we will slash the energy required for cooling. We estimate that our total power consumption will drop from 441kWh to about 264kWh. As an added bonus, much of the electricity will be generated by Aberdeen University’s combined heat and power plant with lower associated carbon emissions. In total, we anticipate saving 1061 tonnes per annum.

And into the bargain, the institutions will save £2.6m collectively over the next 10 years.