This is the first in a series of stories that will focus on datacentre improvements. Some of the ideas will increase capacity, and others will increase redundancy; the last group will improve the overall efficiency and reliability of the electrical and mechanical infrastructure.

Each of these suggestions has been installed and tested in live environments.

Datacentre staffers are challenged when processing capacity is increased within existing facilities. While the reliability of hardware, software and networks has been improving, electrical and mechanical infrastructure improvements lag behind. Forensic evaluations of datacentre failures demonstrate that operator errors, electrical and mechanical single points of failure, design problems, and construction defects are the leading causes for datacentre disruptions.

This situation is bound to be made worse as more datacentres are relocated or expanded over the next five years. Rakesh Kumar, an analyst at Gartner, said that more than 70 percent of the Global 1,000 organisations will have to modify their datacentre facilities significantly during the next five years.

"These legacy datacentres typically were built to a design specification of about 100 to 150 watts per square foot. Current design needs are about 300 to 400 watts per square foot. By 2011, this could rise to more than 600 watts per square foot," Kumar said. "The implication is that most current datacentres will be unable to host the next generation of high-density equipment, so CIOs will have to refurbish their established sites, build new ones or look for alternatives, such as using a hosting provider."

Unfortunately, the compaction of space required by IT hardware has resulted in unprecedented increases in power and cooling needs, outstripping facility infrastructure, design standards and space allocations. "Back of the house" spaces for power and cooling to support high-density computing are, in many datacentres, larger than the computer area itself. Electrical and mechanical areas can be 400 percent larger than the raised-floor computing space in 250-watt-per-square-foot environments.

At the same time, facility infrastructure support is short-changed because datacentre infrastructure represents such a small portion of the real estate market and because the finances relative to the revenue are small. Datacentres represent less than one tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of all real estate construction in the US. In addition, these are lightly occupied or unoccupied buildings. Some are actually "lights-out" facilities that are fully automated, without any occupants.

Also, in a datacentre environment, annual facility costs, including infrastructure depreciation, is as little as 0.5 percent (one-half of one percent) of the IT budget. In a large company, the costs to operate and maintain the electrical and mechanical infrastructure can be less than one-thousandth of one percent of annual revenue, less than a rounding error. These small costs don't generally get much high-level attention.

Furthermore, datacentres may be small areas located within a much larger building, camouflaging the true operational risks and utility expenses. For example, an international pharmaceutical company recently migrated a 1,000-square-foot, high-density server room into its 50,000-square-foot office building. The utility bill for the entire building doubled - and has remained at that level for the past nine months.

EPO problems

This leads us to the first low-cost, low-risk, high-benefit opportunity for improving the reliability of your data centre's critical power system: inspect your emergency power off (EPO) switch.

These innocuous buttons are located at the exits of most datacentres. Once pushed, critical power is shut down and can be reactivated only manually, typically by an electrician who knows the system. Disruptive events due to EPO include abnormal incidents that have shut down emergency 911 access and that have interrupted international trading, corporate accounting, pharmaceutical research and air traffic control.