Countless businesses host their entire data infrastructure in third party servers, yet they have no idea how this works in the real world. That’s why Cohesion Digital took a tour with one of the UK’s leading hosting providers – UKFast.
We wanted to explore why cloud hosting in a dedicated data centre holds many advantages for businesses large and small. Understanding how data centres operate – and which features you need to ask about from your provider – helps you make an informed decision.
As a UKFast partner, we know the high quality of their services – a fact that was reinforced by our visit to the £3.5 million MaNOC 4 data centre in Manchester. Here, innovation and extraordinary attention to detail have optimised the core areas for data centre operation:
security | power | cooling | airflow | fire suppression | connectivity
The first thing you notice is the high-level security. The facility is surrounded by razor wire and the gateway is the same as used by Strangeways prison. In this case, though, UKFast is keeping people out! MaNOC 4 is manned 24/7 and protected by magnetic strip access which logs all access. Security is taken so seriously that UKFast uses no external branding – most people wouldn’t even know what was happening there – and CCTV maintains a constant watch.
Once inside the gates, you see 3 large diesel generators. These form part of the Uninterrupted Power System (UPS) which ensures the servers will never experience power outages. Intelligent automated power management cleans and distributes the power so there are no spikes and not even a fractional blip in supply should mains electricity fail.
Battery backup initially keeps the facility running in the event of mains failure, providing ample time for the generators to kick in. These are configured to N+1 standard, meaning redundancy is built in. Should one of the generators fail, a spare immediately takes its place. In fact, the facility could run without mains power indefinitely and fortnightly transfers to backup power allow UKFast to ensure the entire system is working at peak efficiency.
The servers themselves are fed by a bespoke low voltage panel (LVP) and with yet more care to safeguard power, every storage rack is fed by two cables. If one fails, the other maintains an uninterrupted power supply.
Just like your own computer, servers generate heat and need cooling – only on a massive scale. Many data centres use incredibly inefficient and wasteful processes which cool the entire room. UKFast uses contained cold-aisle technology, where cold air is pumped over the front of servers. This highly focused cooling keeps the servers working at optimum efficiency whilst only chilling a fifth of the space that would conventionally be cooled. This means both costs and carbon emissions are reduced, enabling you to make an economically and environmentally responsible choice about your data storage provider.
Cooling only works effectively, however, if combined with precise airflow control – a feature that is absent from many data centres. This is achieved through the CRAC system (Computer Room Air Conditioning). CRAC manages airflow intelligently, keeping servers at their optimum temperature with anti-clogging fans and filtering processes to remove airborne contaminants. As with the generators, CRAC is such an essential component it is configured to N+1 standards, so backup is always in place should the primary system fail.
Companies storing critical data on their own systems run a huge risk of losing it if fire breaks out – not from flames or smoke, but water. Building-based extinguisher systems use water, meaning the fire will be contained before serious damage is done, but computers and water definitely don’t mix!
MaNOC 4 has a sophisticated fire suppression system which uses tanks of argon gas. These deploy only in the area where fire has been detected and starve it of oxygen without causing any damage to the servers. The entire system is operated by VESDA – the Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus. This detects flames or smoke more rapidly than conventional detectors, triggering the argon suppression system without affecting the servers’ operations.
The benefits of cloud computing are lost if the data centre’s connection to both the internet and the company using its services is slow or unreliable. That’s why MaNOC 4 is based in Manchester. Pioneering work carried out by the University of Manchester laid the foundations for some of the most advanced communications infrastructures in the UK.
The data centre’s servers are connected by a sophisticated carrier-grade network identical to the kinds used by BT, Virgin and Cable & Wireless for their communications services. This features dark fibre connectivity, with fibres in separate fibre ducts. This means you have the fastest grade of data transmission with yet more redundancy as standard – if one fibre is damaged, another will continue the connection without interruption.
Many companies choose data centres in the South East, imagining this means faster connection speeds with London. In reality, the connection speed from locations around the capital into the City is around 4 milliseconds, whilst from Manchester to London using UKFast’s dark fibre connection it’s under 6 milliseconds. In any meaningful sense, there is no difference in speed, yet the costs of data centres in the South East are significantly higher.
MaNOC 4 features 3PAR SAN storage – a high-speed sub-network of shared storage devices which delivers the kind of enterprise level performance expected by multi-national corporations. And yet this service is affordable for much smaller businesses because of the economies offered by UKFast’s smart operations.
The processes outlined in this article sound straightforward, but in reality a data centre such as MaNOC 4 is built on the foundations of remarkably sophisticated and innovatory science. When combined with the determination of UKFast to operate in an affordable, reliable and ecologically responsible fashion, it’s not hard to see why they have grown so rapidly to become a leading data services provider in the UK.
The opportunities offered to businesses of all sizes for revolutionising their data storage are exciting, and as technology moves forward these are increasing all the time. At Cohesion Digital, we advise all our clients on the best options for their specific data storage needs and we would be happy to do the same for you.