Data centres are overheating all right - but it's not their fault. So says the manager of one of the UK's major data centre providers.

In a number of articles, we've alluded to the fact that data centres are becoming over-stuffed and over-heated with over-powered, under-utilised computers -- and we've blamed data centre managers for it. It's time we owned up and admitted that we've used the term perhaps a little too loosely.

At least that's the view of Bob Harris, Technical Services Director at Telehouse, which services much of the City of London's financial services organisations.

Telehouse has five sites across London and Paris, providing over 28,000 square metres of co-location space, with clients representing every major business sector. It's also the primary site for the London Internet Exchange (LINX).

One of Harris' key points is that facilities managers don't decide what equipment goes into those data centres. Instead, as a neutral facilities provider, it's his job to ensure that the infrastructure is able to support whatever equipment the customer wants to put in there. "We host corporate data centres, and they suffer the same problems as others -- power availability and consumption", says Harris.

In financial services and some other industries, they can use as much computing power as they can get. "In finance, speed of processing is everything," he says. "Vast amounts of raw data need to go through, as it gives the organisation a competitive edge. So business is always looking for fastest way to get data to those who need it."

But that's not true for everyone. So if most of his customers don't actually need the power they buy and install, why the mismatch? "Server makers continue to push the boundaries to get more processing per square foot, and they're not taking account of the effect that has on the environment", says Harris. Further, he argues that there's a lag between the demand for computing and its actual arrival, due to the time taken to make a purchase and to provision a new machine, and this tends to make people over-specify.

The trouble is, says Harris, that this rebounds on the data centre manager. "There's an impact of new technology on the older data centre in particular", he says. "It can cope with the change of equipment but in terms of cooling? With power densities continuing to rise, the demand for cooling is proving problematic.

"Prediction is a major headache", he says. "In neutral co-lo centres, we are following rather than leading our customers, trying to match facilities with requirements. At convenient times, we refresh the infrastructure and bring it up to the standard necessary in the marketplace at that time. It means re-provisioning the power and cooling systems. And what we're seeing increasingly is a changing concept of delivery of service, from n+1 to n+n redundancy for higher service levels." That means even more machines.

While this increases costs to the data centre in terms of floor space, power and cooling, it also increases the service levels Harris can offer his customers, which means that the cost is not necessarily the top problem. He sees energy costs as an industry problem, not for the data centre.

What about environmental issues? For Harris, the right sort of data centre could get free cooling in winter and still provide heat for surrounding buildings. And for him, it's good news that the nuclear option of electricity generation is back on the political agenda, noting that some nuclear generators will start to come offline at the end of 2006. In the meantime, though, "we can also buy green electricity if available, and match cooling with co-generation, using heat to provide heat for buildings. The next generation of data centres will need to be more environmentally friendly to reduce costs, given today's pricing pressures", says Harris.

However, "we're power hungry", says Harris, "and the wind farm approach wouldn't be functional. I think other raw materials will start to find favour such as coal." But still he worries about whether the National Grid can cope in the longer term with the increasing power drain from data centres.

If there were difficulties with oil and gas plus a bad winter, problems could occur locally", Harris says. "Telehouse has always taken the view though that it should be able to manage its business through grid failure, so we have backup generation and fuel stocks/delivery arrangements."

He hedges his bets by forward buying electricity -- although in recent times that's not a smart strategy and he's switched to buying it on the spot market. He also buys excess electricity capacity from the utility. "We have 50 per cent spare that we can pull off when we need it", he said. "There's a generator spinning in a turbine room somewhere with Telehouse's name on it."

What can IT managers do to help? For Harris, there has to be co-operation between facilities managers and IT managers. "We have to be close to customers to understand to what their needs are. Consolidation might help, although it probably means the same power draw but from fewer boxes."

If there's a message, it's that the data centre manager will continue to provide services though the price you're asked to pay is likely to increase way beyond the level of inflation. A closer match between requirement and machinery might help contain those co-lo bills, along with less power-hungry machines.

Intel and AMD both promise products that will help. We wait and see.