In Pictures: The physical cloud

What is the physical technology that is behind a cloud service? Sim Ahmed takes a look inside a datacentre

Computerworld journalist Sim Ahmed took a tour of Datacom’s Orbit datacentre in Albany to find out what is physically required to host a cloud service. Datacom hosts major companies like TelstraClear at its Albany centre. It is also a part of the government’s infrastructure-as-a-service panel, and hosts several government cloud services.

Location is paramount for any datacentre, says Tom Jacob, general manager of datacentres at Datacom. Datacom has facilities in Auckland and Christchurch, and is building another in Te Rapa near Hamilton.

Datacom’s Albany centre was completed in April 2009, and is around 50 metres above sea level.

Similarly the datacentre being constructed in Te Rapa was chosen because the region is one of the most geologically stable in the country. Jacob says an added bonus is its proximity to Auckland keeps latency between the Albany datacentre and Te Rapa low.

The Orbit facility is usually staffed by only six people, which includes security. The Te Rapa centre will have a similar number, and Jacob says a team is being trained for its opening early next year.

(Insulated cables connect the transformers to the external power grid)

Orbit is powered by two separate connections to the main power grid. A series of transformers converts the 11,000kv from the grid into a more manageable 400 volts.

Fault tolerance is built into the system by doubling up on connections to the data floor and essential systems like cooling. The parallel systems give technicians the ability to shut down and replace one section without disrupting power to the servers.

(Series of 12 volt batteries as a part of the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system)

Incase power from the grid is cut, the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system kicks in to keep the data floor and cooling systems running. The UPS consists of several pre-charged 12 volt batteries and is designed to support the centre for the time it takes for the diesel generators to start - which Jacob says can take up to 15 seconds.

(Diesel generator)

(Internal diesel fuel tanks)

The diesel generators can produce up to two megawatts of power each. External fuel tanks containing a combined 70,000 litres of diesel can keep it running for two and a half days.

(Left - Water silos used as coolant; Right - Cooling fans)

Jacob says increasingly customers are seeking environmentally friendly data centres to host their cloud systems on. In part this is to support environmental efforts within their organisation, but since most customers pay for the amount of energy they use an efficient system also significantly reduces their hosting costs.

The biggest energy costs outside of powering the IT infrastructure is cooling, says Jacob.

(Left - Brand new air pre-filter; Right - Pre-filter after several months use)

Fans underneath the data floor are capable of producing 2 megawatts of cooling, and push air up through vents to cool the racks of equipment. Plastic curtains separate the rows of hardware into cool aisles, and hot aisles - with a temperature difference of 10 degrees between the two.

The datacentre offsets some of its cooling cost by mixing air from the hot aisle with filtered air from outside to maintain a constant temperature of 35 degrees.

If the humidity is too high or low, or the air outside is not of sufficient quality, the technicians can switch to the closed atmosphere system which recirculates air from hot aisle and uses a water cooling system to reduce its temperature. Jacob says because the air temperature in Auckland is usually below 35 degrees, the first method is preferred and uses significantly less power than relying on Orbit’s water cooling system alone.

(Fire suppression gas tanks, filled with 50 precent Argon/ 50 percent Nitrogen mix)

The amount of heat generated at datacentres make them particularly susceptible to fires, says Jacob.

Instead of using sprinkler systems to suppress fires on the data floor, which would damage the IT equipment, an inert gas comprising of Argon and Nitrogen is released into the rooms to suffocate fires.

(Water misting pumps)

In areas of the datacentre where petroleum products are present a water mist fire protection system is used. The mist flashes into steam when it makes contact with fire which reducing the oxygen level in the room below that which can sustain a fire.

(Typical aisle in a data floor. Cold air pushed up through grates on the floor)

The heart of the facility is its four data floors measuring 1371 square metres.

Depending on customer needs the racks can be a mixture of storage, server, or networking equipment.

(Punch down system used to connect new networks to TelstraClear)

Orbit can host 780 racks, and is designed to support 4 megawatts of IT load. Currently three of its four pods are occupied by customers, the fourth pod has been constructed with customers moving in over the next few months.

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