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How data centres must cope with drought

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Data centres are utility-hungry installations that require always-on supplies of power and cooling. This means electricity – possibly as much as two percent of the world’s energy – and often, it means water.

As our demand for data, and the infrastructure in which to store it, skyrockets, the data centre industry has demonstrated remarkable ability to improve energy efficiency as it scales. While this technology is currently developed outside South Africa’s borders, threats to our utilities – first load shedding and now the drought in Cape Town – has prompted fresh thinking when local data centres are built and extended.

The fact is that data centres cannot be allowed to go dark – not for lack of electricity or water. The effects of a total loss of data on commercial, financial and government services would be catastrophic.

Internet Solutions’ Bree Street data centre, online since 2007, is an example of legacy infrastructure that was designed with water chillers when the resource was plentiful.

After an intensive study by its coastal data centre operations teams, the company is now replacing these with a closed loop system of air-cooled chillers to reduce water consumption by about 60 percent, while running the data centre slightly warmer than usual to further save water.

Sameer Cassim, R&D Systems Architect at Internet Solutions, says that environmental necessity and shifting client demand are driving the design of data centres built for change and flexibility.

“This includes power and cooling systems that are more agile and resilient,” he says.

Prefabricated for the future

Cassim believes that modular data centre builds, assembled using several prefabricated units, are the way of the future. The first such installation in the Internet Solutions portfolio comes online in Rosebank, Johannesburg, later this year.

Modular design future-proofs investment in the facility – additional modules can scale density up or down, decrease racks or increase cooling to offer clients a flexible data centre service that remains at the forefront of industry standards and changing business requirements.

“Prefabricated data centres are rapidly deployed, allowing operators to scope and redesign each section based on current power, cooling, security and network requirements or availability, says Cassim.

Modern data centre management

Smart monitoring of the data centre environment means intelligent switching between systems for the most favourable conditions in the data centre, and more utility savings.

“Modern software tools enable intelligence from initial modelling, through ongoing monitoring and management, to orchestrated, automatic response to incidents and failures to avoid outages,” says Cassim.

“Like many other aspects of IT, power and cooling management will increasingly become a software-defined activity.”

Intuitive transfer between cooling systems, for example, results in water-dependent cooling used only when necessary, before its load is passed to air cooling systems.

Cassim says that software-defined power management allows data centre operators to virtualise the resource and share it at different instances, based on demand, with various consumers. Depending on activity in the data centre and relevant SLAs, operators can reduce both Capex and Opex spend by ensuring that power is delivered to equipment at the right time and scale, without any losses or waste.

Energy conservation and renewables

The 2016 Cisco Global Cloud Index maintains that annual global data centre IP traffic will reach 15.3 zettabytes or ZB (1.3 ZB per month) by the end of 2020, up from 4.7 ZB per year (390 exabytes or EB per month) in 2015. Further, the data stored in data centres globally will quintuple by 2020 to reach 915 EB by 2020.

It is safe to assume that the utility implications, including carbon footprint, of various data centre technologies will become increasingly relevant in parallel. Again, this is particularly true in South Africa.

A recent study conducted by the US Department of Energy in collaboration with researchers from Stanford University, Northwestern University, and Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that despite demand for data centre capacity in the US growing tremendously in the last five years, total data centre energy consumption grew only slightly.

One of many successful initiatives undertaken by data centre technologists is the Open Compute Platform, which uses a decentralised Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) to improve energy efficiency by removing the power supply from the server.

Another is an Australian indirect evaporative air cooling technology that is inspired by the human body’s own cooling mechanism. Internet Solutions is currently looking at rolling out a ‘proof of concept’ of this system in one of its smaller data centres in Johannesburg.

Alternative energy sources are also under constant study although so far, alternatives such as solar, hydro, geothermal and fuel cell technology are not openly received by data centre operators as the power supply is insufficiently consistent and reliable for uptime.

“We’re seeing a new trend towards installing ‘microgrids’ into data centres which split power sources for different activities,” says Cassim.

This allows carefully limited use of renewable resources, with the source selector equipped to intelligently programme the supply based on minimal demand.

“Cape Town’s drought provided a very immediate reason to examine how we could adapt systems at our Bree Street location,” says Cassim. “Given shifting weather patterns around the world, it’s not surprising that the international trend is towards reducing reliance on utility resources altogether.”

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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