Capgemini pushes efficiency limits in Swindon data centre

Merlin wields thermodynamic magic wand

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The Merlin data centre just opened in Swindon might look like an indoor hockey rink, but it is in fact a bespoke modular data centre created by Capgemini to save some bucks pounds euros on power and cooling as it modernises its computing facilities worldwide.

The facility, which is located at an undisclosed brownfield location in the suburbs of Swindon, boasts an energy efficiency that's as good as anything Google or Yahoo! can put in the field. And Capgemini says it has gone all green and tried to encourage its suppliers to use sustainable processes and materials in the construction of the Merlin facility. The latter gets Capgemini some press releases, but the former puts money on the bottom line.

From the outside, you would probably drive by the Merlin data centre and wonder if it was a distribution centre, a very large fire station, or a government building housing heaven knows what:

Merlin Data Centre Exterior

The exterior of the Merlin data centre in Swindon

But these backup power generators on the outside of the building would probably make you think something was up at the Merlin facility:

Merlin Data Center Backup Generators

Backup generators for the Merlin data centre

The facility has over 100,000 square feet of total space, with two lots of 30,000 square feet of usable IT space dedicated to modular server, storage, and networking containers that are slid individually into the facility and parked side-by-side like a very crowded modular home park. Capgemini has not gone crazy by using 20-foot or 40-foot metal shipping containers as the data centre's basic module, like Microsoft and NASA Ames (among others) have done.

But the Merlin data centre does make use of modular units that are loaded up with IT gear and that allow for the devices to be cooled more efficiently than a vast open data center that, for all intents and purposes, has its own capricious weather. Capgemini says it has worked with an unnamed "global building management system" vendor to design the modules and the systems to power and cool them. The upshot is that the Swindon data centre will take about half as much juice to power and cool as a traditional data center, and it will take about a quarter of the funds to maintain it, as well.

Each metal-shell building can hold a dozen of the compute modules, which have 2,500 square feet of space each. Here's what the inside looks like when it is empty (and it does look like you could skate on the floor in your stocking feet):

Merlin Data Center Interior

The interior of the mostly empty Merlin data centre (click to enlarge)

Here's what one of the server-room modules look like, which include secure doors for extra, well, security, and to keep air from mixing unpredictably within the centre as well as a power room that hangs off the side:

Merlin Data Center IT Module

An IT module within the Merlin data centre

This picture, which shows people installing the racks inside of an IT module with the side still open, gives you a better sense of scale:

Merlin Data Center Module Fitting

This is the internal view of one of the power rooms attached to the module:

Merlin Data Center Power Room

And here is what a cold aisle inside of the IT module looks like:

Merlin Data Centre Cold Aisle

Like an increasing number of large data centres, the Merlin facility is relying on the cool temperatures that prevail in Swindon to allow for outside air to cool the equipment humming along inside of the modules. Without saying too much about its secret design, Capgemini says that it is using a two-stage approach to cooling the facility. If the outside air is cool enough, this is filtered through the walls and circulated around the modules as needed. If it gets warm, then Merlin can turn on evaporative cooling units that can cool the air that is pumped into the modules. The IT outsourcer claims that the custom-made building management system that controls the flow of cold and hot air through the entire facility is "one of the most sophisticated ever designed."

The net-net of the new facility is that the Merlin data centre has a power-usage effectiveness rating of 1.08, which matches the chicken-coop data center that Yahoo! was clucking about two weeks ago. PUE measures how efficient a data center design is, and is the ratio of the total power used by the data center divided by the total power supplied to the computing equipment. The typical data centre has a PUE of somewhere between 2 and 2.5, depending on whom you ask. Google's best data centers run at around 1.10, and the company averages somewhere between 1.15 and 1.25.

Capgemini is in the middle of a $125m upgrade of its 25 data centres behind its Global Infrastructure Management IT outsourcing and cloud computing business. The French company operates data centres in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. At this time, the GIO operation has 26,000 servers, of which 8,000 have been virtualised.

Bootnote: Capgemini got back to us and says that the IT modules that it is using in the Merlin data center come from none other than Bladeroom Group, which El Reg told you all about here. Capgemini tapped Bladeroom partner Red Engineering Design to help architect the data center, and SpieMathewHall were the principal contractors on the job. ®

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