There is no doubt that running your ICT operations from a data centre in Central London is a lot more expensive than running them from a shed in a field outside the M25, but for companies that value connectivity and low latency, paying that bit extra can be a worthwhile investment.

According to Roger Keenan, managing director of the central London co-location data centre City Lifeline, there are two groups of customers that can really benefit from having their IT equipment hosted locally: financial services and telecoms companies.

For the financial services, low latency is essential, because being able to get in and do a trade a millisecond before somebody else is can mean the difference between success and failure.

For telecoms companies, it is not so much about latency but differential latency (ie. The space between one packet arriving and the next.

“If you're sending a spreadsheet to somebody then you just send a whole load of packets and it doesn't really matter what order they arrive in. The spreadsheet is reassembled from the packets and you don't get the spreadsheet until the last packet has arrived. It doesn't really matter how long it takes,” said Keenan.

“If you're doing something like a voice call, then you can't send a packet at time zero and then send a packet half a second later that relates to a piece of the phone conversation that was before time zero, so the differential latency between the packets becomes very important.”

Serving the City for 20 years

City Lifeline has been has been located on Clifton Street in the City of London since 1993. It is the second longest established data centre in London after Telehouse North. Both facilities were set up in the 90s to provide disaster recovery for city trading rooms and handle enormous volumes of telecommunications traffic.

The facility is served by a total of 24 carriers, including BT Wholesale, Cable&Wireless, Colt, Kcom, Verizon and Virgin.

Today, roughly half City Lifeline's customers are telcos. It also hosts a great deal of general IT, data processing, office equipment, and communications-related technology.

One of City Lifeline's customers is Nowtel, which claims to be the largest pre-paid card company in the UK. According to Keenan, Nowtel is a good example of why it is advantageous to be located in central London.

“They require lots of connectivity out to every single part of the world. So if you say I need to have 2 different routes into Pakistan and 2 different routes into Ecuador and 2 different routes into Alaska then those will all end up being different carriers, so you have to go some where that's got all those carriers.”

However, running a data centre in Central London is not without its challenges. There is always a shortage of power in the middle of big cities, so City Lifeline has to secure the extra power that it needs well in advance of future projects.

Ensuring that there is a high level of redundancy is also essential. City Lifeline has two mains feeds coming into the building, but there is always a risk of power cuts, so the company also has two diesel generating plants that will generate enough power to replace the mains in a crisis.

“If it just so happens that you're doing an oil change on the diesel engine and the power fails, then you have to have another complete set of equipment just in case that happens. So everything is protected and it's protected in duplicate,” said Keenan.

Efficiency challenges

City Lifeline also tries to be as green as it practically can be, and buys 100% renewable energy from the grid, but Keenan said that being in a city often leaves little room for manoeuvre.

“If you're designing a data centre that sits in a green field and everything is flat, there are all sorts of things which are possible, which give you high levels of efficiency that you can't do in central London,” said Keenan.

“An example for instance is water cooling. If you have everything on one level because you're just building in a field, then you can water cool things. If you're in a multi-story building as we are, then putting water cooling systems on the top floor and then ending up with a water leak that cascades down the building would be a catastrophe, so we would never design something like that.”

Keenan said that there are other issues with free air cooling, because if the data centre is located in a residential area and the fans are turned on in the middle of the night, they can cause noise pollution, so a lot of thought and a lot of careful design that has to go into that.

“Inevitably, that means that the costs of cooling systems in the middle of a city are going to be more than if you just designed it on a greenfield site,” he said.

Commenting on calls by the European Commission for faster and more decisive action from the IT industry on the issue of raising the temperature in the data centre, Keenan said that the situation is different for companies operating their own data centres and commercial colocation companies like City Lifeline.

“If you're Barclays Bank and you have complete control over what you're doing, you can say every three years we're going to scrap all our servers and buy a brand new set of servers that operate with an inlet temperature of 30ºC. Then you can turn the knobs up and you can say the inlet temperature is going to be 30ºC and it all works,” he said.

“For a commercial colocation company like us, customers are buying the equipment and we don't know what they're going to buy. So you might find someone who's got brand new servers in a rack and then in the next rack you've got somebody who's got a 12-year-old digital switch, which is on its last legs but is still being used.

If you let the temperature go up to 24ºC, all his equipment starts making funny noises and produces alarms and stops working. So for us we end up working to the lowest common denominator.”

Healthy competition

While City Lifeline is currently one of the most central data centres in London, it is soon to face competition from Volta, which is in the process of turning the old Reuters building in Great Sutton Street into a new colocation data centre.

Keenan said that generally such competition is a good thing because it validates the customer proposition that has been set out by City Lifeline for many years.

“Assuming Volta’s management don’t start off in panic mode and sell at huge discounts (which they might because they have an awfully big debt and equity investment to recover), the emergence of Volta will be good for City Lifeline and good for customers,” he said.