The EURECA moment: Counting the cost of running the UK’s public sector datacentres
The EU-backed EURECA project has spent the past 36 months assessing the state of public sector datacentres across Europe, and is revealing what it found.
UK public sector organisations are under constant pressure to consolidate and downsize their datacentres, with ever-dwindling budgets meaning they need to achieve more with fewer resources.
For the past 36 months or so, the EU Commission-funded EURECA project has existed to lend public sector datacentre operators a hand with this work by helping them identify areas within their estates where cost savings could be made and environmental improvements achieved. This work has seen the organisation drafted in to assess more than 350 public sector datacentres in seven European countries and, in the process, help their operators save about 45 gigawatt hours of energy a year and €4.5-5m in annualised cost savings.
“This is just the energy savings we know about,” says EURECA project co-ordinator Rabih Bashroush. “A lot of people take on our ideas from hearing about them at events, so we don’t know what the second- and third-level impacts of our work are.”
With the project now drawing to a close, the team are sharing the insights they have gleaned from spending three years examining the state of Europe’s public sector datacentre estate, including details of how much of a financial burden datacentres continue to be on the budget sheets of UK public sector organisations.
“The cost to host a server in the public sector per year is €14,000 (£12,500), and that factors in the costs of labour, facilities, rent and energy consumption. If you mixed this [information] with other datasets we have noticed, on average, there is one server for every 20 public sector employees.” Rabih Bashroush, EURECA project
According to figures issued by the Office for National Statistics in September 2017, 5.492 million people are employed by the UK public sector. Combining this with its own data has led EURECA to conclude that about £3.4bn is still being spent each year on keeping UK public sector datacentres and server rooms ticking over.
“What this shows is that there are plenty of savings opportunities to be had,” says Bashroush.
Preserving the public sector purse
The £3.4bn figure is all the more surprising given the work the Cabinet Office has put into getting the UK public sector to wind down its reliance on private, in-house datacentres and ramp up the use of cloud technologies.
The emergence of the G-Cloud procurement framework in 2012 and the introduction of the cloud-first mandate for all central government departments the follow year are examples of this.
Around the same time as EURECA got off the ground in March 2015, the Cabinet Office issued details of how – in collaboration with Ark Data Centres – it planned to support datacentre consolidation for non-cloud workloads by creating the Crown Hosting Service.
When working with the UK public sector, Bashroush says he recommends using both G-Cloud and Crown Hosting for datacentre rationalisation purposes, but concedes that some workloads may need to remain in private datacentres and server rooms for some time to come.
“Our first recommendation [to public sector operators] is to consolidate, and a common mistake is that people think moving everything they have to the cloud will solve the problem, but it is not as simple as that because not all workloads are cloud compatible,” he says.
Barriers to datacentre consolidation
The way public sector budgets work and the influence that has over IT buying decisions can sometimes end up creating inefficiencies in the datacentre, rather than eradicating them, says Bashroush.
"This year they have budget, but next year they don’t know if it is going to come or not, so they go and buy more servers, but that drives down efficiency because they end up with capacity they do not need, but they have the budget for,” he says. “The public sector also prefers capital expenditure more than committing to recurring expenditures, so they would rather invest now but not worry about it for a few years down the line rather than refresh every two years. It is just the way they operate.”
In some of the datacentres EURECA has seen, there is at least an appreciation and understanding of the need to change how the organisation in question consumes IT resources – but that is not necessarily a given. According to Bashroush, there are instances when the push for consolidation and greater datacentre efficiency meets resistance from stakeholders with “competing objectives”. Partly out of fear, their teams will not receive due credit for any cost savings or energy efficiency achievements their actions have helped to secure.
“The datacentre operators do not pick up the energy bill, so they won’t see any return to their teams and are not really incentivised to invest in this,” he says. “Or maybe the person who picks up the bill for new [energy efficient] datacentre servers is not the one who gets rewarded and due credit for the improvements they bring.”
Also, although there is a degree of political pressure on public sector datacentre operators to make their sites more efficient from a cost and energy perspective, the politicians themselves are not always committed to ensuring these changes happen.
“In the public sector, you have politicians who we know are not interested in any investment that does not return [benefits and improvements] within their office because they don’t get the credit for it, and energy-efficient investments take time to show a return,” says Bashroush.
Concerns about job security can create further pushback against any datacentre consolidation effort, he adds, which is another reason why some politicians are fearful of throwing their whole weight behind such initiatives.
“People [working in datacentres] fear for their jobs, and worry about what will happen to them if consolidation occurs,” he says. “And politicians know it does not go down well when you say, ‘we’ve done this project and made X people redundant’.”
But, in EURECA’s experience, it is wrong to assume that datacentre consolidation means guaranteed job losses. They can be avoided if organisations commit to redeploying affected workers elsewhere in the business.
“We have a beautiful example we came across that we’re going to publish soon from [an organisation in] Northern Ireland, where they created capacity in their IT workforce [through consolidation],” says Bashroush. “What they did was retrain, reposition and redeploy these people to deliver services they were never able to before. It isn’t about losing jobs – it’s about retraining people to deliver better services.”
Thinking differently for deployments
The EURECA project’s work has also challenged conventional thinking about how datacentres should be run by getting operators to rethink their server utilisation strategy and secure some energy-efficiency gains at their sites, particularly as a lot of the policies, regulations and design ideas that are considered essential do not always work in public sector datacentres because of their relatively small size, says Bashroush.
“A lot of these ideas are focused on addressing efficiency in large datacentres and how you make those more energy efficient, but what we realised is that in the public sector, 80% of datacentres have less than 24 racks,” he says. “Only 3% have more than 125 racks and that is not good news at all because small server rooms are very tough to make energy efficient.”
EURECA’s analysis of these facilities has shown that many are running servers at 15-25% utilisation, and yet could be consuming up to 70% of the site’s energy. “There were cases of 35% utilisation and the best we saw was just under 40%,” says Bashroush. Using this data, the EURECA team looked into the relationship between a datacentre’s server utilisation levels, its power usage effectiveness (PUE) score and a site’s overall energy consumption. This led to the discovery that increasing PUE contributes to linear growth in energy consumption, whereas increasing server utilisation leads to exponential growth in power usage.
“If you operate a datacentre with a server utilisation of 10% and you increase your utilisation to 20% or 30%, you can achieve savings that you will never achieve alone by just addressing the infrastructure, which cost you much more to address anyway,” says Bashroush.“You just need to sit down see what’s happening [in the datacentre] and do some proper capacity planning to ensure there is enough capacity still to deal with seasonal peaks, but it’s much cheaper to address. It’s not a simple thing to address, though, as you need someone who knows what they’re doing.”
A lasting legacy
Apart from sharing what EURECA has uncovered over the project’s 36-month life, Bashroush is also concerning himself with safeguarding the initiative’s legacy, so it can continue to influence public sector datacentre procurement for many years to come.
“We have created a lot of training courses that will continue to be online, and a market directory that is free and [supplier] neutral of datacentre products and services to make it easier for the public sector, and a knowledge-sharing platform on LinkedIn,” he says. “All of that will survive beyond the project.”
Bashroush also credits EURECA’s work with helping to initiate a change in how the datacentre industry talks about energy efficiency, so it does not focus on PUE at the expense of everything else.
“Before EURECA, people only thought about PUE, cooling and power part of the energy-efficiency equation, and through this work we have shown them the importance and value of focusing on IT and utilisation,” he says. “In fairness, people did talk about IT and said it was time we focused on it, but people didn’t really understand or have the data to support that discussion. The main legacy [of EURECA] is that we really pinned that down and showed the value.”