They call it the ’Smartbunker’ a data centre built on a former NATO military facility, deep under the soil of England’s level Lincolnshire countryside. This isn’t the first such centre to play on its military heritage as a metaphor for what it does, but it might be the first to pioneer a new type of approach to the idea that rows and rows of servers lined up in secure facilities are the destiny of almost all IT systems.

Built, run, and recently opened by managed service outfit Centrinet, the Smartbunker is claimed to be the first centre in the UK, and possibly the world, run on the principle of ‘zero carbon’ energy use. If this sounds implausible, it would have been only a few short years ago. Centrinet set out with a Greenfield design primed to minimise energy use by employing the most efficient blade servers the company could find (IBM as it happens), which could fit more computing power into less space without increasing electricity usage. Then the company sourced all of its electricity from green energy supplier Ecotricity, which generates all its commercial electricity from wind power sites across the UK, including one not far from Centrinet’s HQ.

Such green sourcing has come about through a mixture of events, including the long-standing de-regulation of the UK’s energy market in the early 1990s, and the recent boom in investment in renewable energy systems by startup suppliers. According to Centrinet’s managing director, Kelly Smith, data centres built only a relatively short time ago would not have had the incentive to plan their business model around such energy supply, and would probably not have put money into energy-efficient blade servers unless they were aimed exclusively at high-end customers.

Green energy is suddenly a bit of a draw for businesses, a change of heart that has happened with remarkable speed. According to Smith, Centrinet’s adoption of this business model plays into an anxiety by their customers, and potential customers, to reduce their carbon footprint. Many business leaders can see the direction of government policy, and that is towards taxing carbon emissions, probably by allowing carbon credits which when exceeded will ramp up levels of taxation. Alarmed at this change of intellectual pace, many have started to adapt to the inevitability that the business model of ten years hence will be very different in this respect from what passes today.

He contrasts the ‘zero carbon’ approach with the ‘carbon neutral’ approach with which it is sometimes confused. Carbon neutral is an approach that builds on carbon offsetting, a controversial approach to reducing emissions that works by trading the credits to emit carbon in an open market. Zero carbon, on the other hand, claims to use energy that has been produced using sources that emit no carbon in the generation process itself, such as the burning of fossil fuels. Some have pointed out that this concept is misleading because the infrastructure to generate ‘zero’ carbon does emit carbon indirectly (ie, building and running such a facility is bound to involve some carbon emissions) , but there is little doubt that buying this sort of energy is a step change from the conventional approach of tapping into the carbon-based grid.

“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, because your customers care about it. It is on the agenda,” says Kelly Smith of the carbon issue. “It is time for a change, and time for something different.”
He claims that the blade configuration uses 60 percent less power, including cooling, than a 1U rack server built from commodity parts and of equivalent power. Smartbunker runs to 30,000 square feet, with a hypothetical capacity of almost 33,000 customer servers.

In fact, the business model is governed by the sort of spreadsheet thinking that is hard to explain in a few sentences. Starting from scratch, it just makes sense to reduce energy use relative to server power, and to do so using zero carbon electricity as a point of differentiation. The pay-back on a data centre such as Smartbunker is years, so long-term thinking is what makes the difference in a highly competitive market.

What Centrinet has to contend with is a lot of noise on green issues. Barely a day passes without some big IT concern or other jumping on the idea as a way to project itself as carbon-responsible. It’s not as if IT has a good image in this area. It could be that one day soon, all data centres will be configured this way, by which time low-carbon issues will have been so absorbed into the business mainstream that they won’t be remarked upon. By then, Smartbunker will be just another data centre.

It’s a small irony not remarked on by Smith that the facility itself cost next to nothing to buy from the government in 2003, an unwanted relic of a long-ago Cold War. Appropriate that a bunker built by the tax-payer to protect the country from nuclear war, should be put to use fighting an even more titanic environmental struggle.

A history of the bunker before its Centrinet days can be found here.