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August 9, 2022updated 09 Mar 2023 10:57am

UK data centres should withstand ‘organised blackouts’ but now’s the time to check

The UK faces 'organised blackouts' this winter in a "reasonable worst case scenario", a report claims.

By Pete Swabey

The UK government has identified a “reasonable worst case scenario” in which a shortfall in the national energy supply this winter could require “organised blackouts” for industry, according to a report today by Bloomberg.

IT services should be unaffected by such blackouts, data centre energy experts told Tech Monitor, as enterprise-grade data centres should have back-up diesel generators with at least three days’ worth of fuel.

But customers should check their data centre providers’ business continuity plans, they added, and data centre operators should ensure their diesel supply is guaranteed in the case of an emergency.

Data centre operators should have business continuity plans in place to withstand a national blackout. (Image by ASKA / iStock)

In the government’s “reasonable worst case scenario,” the UK could face an energy shortfall of up to a sixth of peak demand this winter, even after emergency coal plants come online, Bloomberg reported today, citing ‘people familiar with the government’s planning’.

When gas shortages combine with cold weather, this could call for ‘organised blackouts’ for industry “or even households” for several days, according to the report.

However, the business continuity plans of data centre operators should keep IT services running if this were to happen, says John Booth, a data centre efficiency consultant and technical director for the National Data Centre Academy.

UK data centres: plans in place for blackouts

Firstly, Booth says, tier 1 data centres supporting critical national infrastructure (CNI), such as government facilities and BT’s telephone network, will be prioritised for energy supply.

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Other data centres, meanwhile, should have back-up diesel generators and at least three days’ worth of diesel. “Their diesel generators will have day tanks,” he says, “which would probably last about 24 hours. Then they’ll have an external storage tank which can contain up to seven days’ worth of diesel.”

Data centre operators will also have contracts with diesel providers to ensure supply in the case of an emergency. Uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems should manage the switch from grid electricity to back-up generators without disruption to IT systems, Booth says.

Nevertheless, application owners should engage with their provider “to understand what policies and processes they have in place and how they are going to manage a blackout, in the worst case scenario,” says Nick Archer, senior consultant at data centre advisory Uptime Institute.

But the onus is on the providers to reassure their customers, Archer adds. Customers are “reliant on their data centre operators to demonstrate that they are proactive, and that they have the appropriate plans, policies and solutions in place to ensure their [service-level agreements] are met and availability is maintained,” he says.

Data centre operators, meanwhile, should check their contracts with diesel suppliers. “There may well be provisions within their contract that say, ‘In the event of a national emergency, the government might take over the supply’,” Booth says.

Organisations that manage a portfolio of data centres might consider diversifying their fuel supply, so they are not reliant on a single provider, Archer says.

They should also test that their diesel generators can support their customers’ combined IT workload, Booth adds. “I would encourage them to conduct mains failure tests, where they actually replicate a mains grid failure to make sure their systems work as intended.”

Archer adds that operators should make sure any maintenance is complete before Q4 this year, and to ensure that, in the event of “organised blackout”, specialist staff such as UPS experts are on site to ensure everything works as intended.

Booth believes that a planned national blackout is unlikely. Even if gas supplies were to fail, he says, “the nuclear power stations would still be up and running, we would still have the connectors coming from Europe, and we’ve still got a significant hydro [electric] capability.”

Last year, it was reported that Irish government had plans to prioritise homes and hospitals over data centres in the event of a national blackout.

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Read more: Small businesses out of pocket after UK heatwave outages at Google and Oracle

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