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London data centres will feel the effects of the 2012 Games

How significant will the impact of the London 2012 Games be on the capital's data-centre operators?

It has widely been predicted over the last three years that the 2012 Olympic Games will cause a significant drain on electricity supplies in London. Residents of east London in particular are concerned, given that the Olympic stadium in Stratford shares local real-estate and power cables with many of the UK's biggest data-centre facilities.

As early as 2008, data centre companies and analysts told the Guardian newspaper that EDF Energy, the power company serving east London and also the official supplier of energy to the 2012 Games, would have to limit the energy it supplied to other organisations in central London in order to guarantee supplies to the Olympic Park and other venues. Trade publications reported similar complaints from companies who were being forced to wait for new or upgraded electricity supplies until the games are over. The concerns have also had knock-on effects for the data-centres sector.

As recently as September 2011, Terremark, the cloud-hosting business of international carrier Verizon, deliberately chose Amsterdam over London to site its latest European data centre to avoid the Olympic host city's problems with availability and spiralling power costs.

While power outages are an inconvenience for most people, they can be a disaster for data centres and other businesses hosting large server 'farms' and mainframe computers that run mission-critical, latency-intolerant applications which measure downtime in thousands of pounds of lost revenue, rather than blackout minutes. Fortunately, all concerned have had a long time to prepare for the eventuality. EDF Energy's official line is that demand from the Olympics is not preventing power being delivered to data centres and other businesses in the area that need it - but at the same time it has consistently warned commercial customers that demand is high and rising, and that early notice of any additional power requirements is critical to avoid waiting.

EDF Energy has also retained a disclaimer on its website warning of occasional power outages to the Olympic and Stratford City site. It is careful, however, to avoid attributing the possible effects to potential shortages, as opposed to supply disruption caused by severe weather or network faults, with electricity distribution rather than generation handled by UK Power Networks. EDF Energy has made efforts to avoid'capacity problems, simultaneously revamping its infrastructure to cope with London's notorious power problems - which existed even before the city was named as host in 2005 - and exploring more environmentally friendly options.

The company has pledged to source one unit of power from low-carbon nuclear and renewable sources for every unit it pulls from the mains electricity grid, at least for events held at the Olympic Park, with 80 per cent of that low-carbon power coming from its nuclear power plants at Dungeness, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Hunterston, Sizewell and Torness. Heated water for the stadium itself is being provided by the specially-constructed Olympic Park Energy Centre, which runs a gas-fired combined cooling heat & power (CCHP) plant as well as biomass-fired boilers.

Energy costs and hosting demand

Despite these measures, energy costs inside the M25 are variously reported to have risen by 30 per cent in recent years, though because the industry is regulated suppliers cannot charge more for power in London than they do in other parts of the country.

The explosion of new hosting facilities in the capital over the last 20 years had already put a strain on available electricity resources, and it is hard to specifically attribute any recent price hike to the 2012 Games and associated construction projects as opposed to myriad other factors involved. Either way, data-centre operators sitting on facilities within the capital may simply have ended up paying more to secure their energy supplies and protect customer service level agreements (SLAs), though they are perhaps loath to admit it.

"I cannot speculate either way [on whether costs are 30 per cent higher], but for us it was down to good planning," says Richard Warner, UK marketing director for data centre operator Interxion, which runs facilities in east London's Brick Lane. "We knew it [the Olympics] was coming and we made sure we brought enough power in advance as well as excess capacity in case it was needed, so we have not seen it as an issue. We work through power brokerage houses to essentially buy power in advance, so although some organisations will find issues with the Olympics, our managing director has close relationships with those brokerages and negotiates supplies."

The price of electricity is regulated so there is no difference in price in London, says Aidan Paul, founder and chief executive at data centre communications service provider Vtesse Networks: "Once you have a connection you are fine; but what has happened is that in that area it has not been possible to get a substantial upgrade for a number of years because there is no spare capacity available."

Although it has offices in central, west and north London, Equinix's recently-expanded 'London' data centre is situated "well away" from the Olympic Park and outside the M25 in Slough. The company's UK managing director Russell Poole reports no fallout from electricity supply issues or upsurge in demand for hosting services from organisations involved in the Games. "If anything we have seen more interest in our data-centre locations because we take people away from potential power problems.

"The Olympic Park has inhibited the building of new data centres in London because the Olympics took precedence over everything else and that will carry on for a while," he says. "It would be very difficult to put a number on that [whether we are seeing more demand for data centre space as a direct result of the Olympics] - part of it is driven by the Olympics, but not a huge part.

"We did not plan specifically to have extra capacity for the Olympics," he insists. "It was just part of general planning for new inventory".

Travel disruption and security

Whilst data centre operators may have secured their power up-front, and largely feel themselves immune to fluctuations in supply, other aspects of their operations are perhaps more susceptible to disruption from the 2012 games.

"The issue is that people are reliant on centralised data-centre facilities but may not be able to get to them in such a congested area," says Paul. "People do regularly go in to change this or reconfigure that, and if there is any form of disruption or alert, the place will come to a standstill."

Being so close to the transport infrastructure which services the Olympic Park, Interxion faces the risk of delays to its engineers getting in and out of its data centre, one reason why it will install in-building sleeping pods within which five-to-ten on-site staff can crash if tubes or buses get too crowded during the event.

"We've put in sleeping pods next to the servers initially, but when we are fully set up we will have a fully bespoke room with a shower and kitchen," says Warner. "The main point is to give staff doing a late shift somewhere to crash until public transport congestion dies down".

Equinix's Poole adds: "In the event that customers have trouble getting to us during the Olympics, we are confident it can still happen because we are taking precautions to have access to our sites at all times. These involve local accommodation for shift working employees and alternative means of getting to locations."

Interxion has even gone so far as to upgrade security measures at its Brick Lane offices to combat any potential terrorist threat, demanding that engineers and ICT staff pass through scanners as they enter the building, for example. "We have a lot of contractors coming in and out of the site," says Warner, "so as a precaution we have set up an internal Olympics team to manage things and speak with local police."

Part of the broader security effort implemented by the local and Olympic authorities in collaboration with the local police involves cementing-up man hole covers to prevent unauthorised access, a practice which severely restricts the ability of Vtesse Networks and other communications cable providers to conduct routine maintenance or repairs to fibre optic cables should they be required.

"The broad statistics are you get a cable break once in ten years per 100km of cable, but that is in a trunk network in rural areas and towns outside London," explains Paul. "The London fault rate is substantially higher because of the density and the amount of work that goes on all the time." *

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