Future proofing the data centre industry
Based in London, Future Facilities was born into the emerging data centre (DC) industry in 2003. It creates software suites specifically tailored to the DC market for the design, ongoing operation and maintenance of these facilities. This can cover anything from ground up to ground-breaking, design work, new tech employment or troubleshooting and retro-fitting existing centres, while also planning new phases of IT equipment within an existing facility.
“We cover the cradle to grave of a data centre,” maintains Future Facilities COO Jonathan Leppard. “On the software side, we’re utilising simulation to predict what will happen so you don’t have to wait to react to problems. We also have an electronics software product which examines the thermal dynamics of hardware so we can simulate laptops and computers down to chip level. We also provide consultancy services to either ‘out-house’ an entire project as the third party or train people with the technology so they can bring it in-house themselves.”
Future Facilities was shortlisted for the Mission Critical Innovation Award at the 2017 DCD Awards, recognising its quest for excellence using DC simulation in virtual reality. The engineering simulations it provides allow DC owners and operators to understand how to refurbish efficiently and how new construction can be better managed in terms of capacity, energy consumption and cooling. “People will have grand plans but the reality has to hit at some point,” warns Leppard. “The beauty of simulation, replicated in many other industries, gives the ability to look at things in the round before they have to be set in stone. We build these DCs for capacity, efficiency or resilience – some will need 24/7 resilience while others may only need a portion of that. We can then start providing solutions tuned to the needs of a business rather than solutions for the performance of a facility.”
Fifteen years of the company’s expertise is built into its tools and solutions such as the 6Sigma range. “When our users are simulating DCs, it’s important that what we’ve learned is built into the defaults to quickly give them the answers they need to understand where the efficiency losses or gains might be in their design,” asserts Future Facilities Product Manager David King. “In the past decade the rules of thumb people apply have improved, but it’s the small details which our tools can provide for construction models which can help owners and operators achieve better insight into how their DC is going to perform in the future.”
The innovation of Future’s offering lies in having a software package that delivers fundamentals in line with the industry for informed decision-making. “We bring together usability and functionality with industry collaboration to provide the end user with a future-focused qualitative result,” maintains Leppard. “One of the biggest drivers is that no one can do this by themselves – this is a community effort. We’re confident we can bring together disparate silos such as IT and facilities with a tool that gets communication flowing to support better, quicker, long term decisions.”
With DCs getting bigger and calculations becoming increasingly complex, Future Facilities partners with cloud providers to give users access to multiple cores on a price per hour basis so they don’t need to buy expensive hardware in house. “Virtual reality is something we’ve been embracing so we’re able to put our users inside the model using Oculus Rift,” adds King. “Looking to the future, we’re aiming to add some of our simulation results into augmented reality to help visualise the invisible aspects of cooling systems in DCs such as the air flow. We’re also investigating ways of automating report generation and diagnostics so our users can fully understand their simulations results and get the full benefit.” Future is also planning to apply its tech to consider the effects of where DCs are located, using external modelling to look at efficiencies using air instead of air conditioning to make DC services much greener.
A pioneer in the space, Future is excited about the potential for simulation to sit at the heart of the design process for mission critical construction, and up for the challenge of promoting its integration with operational planning and process management. “We think we can provide this for the DC life cycle,” assures Leppard. “It does mean changing processes to accommodate another cycle of thought, so speed of adoption in the industry will be a challenge for us. Our software is evolving to meet the changing needs of management and monitoring. Understanding the ROI is key with something you can’t necessarily see or monitor in a physical sense. You wouldn’t necessarily know it’s working for you unless you had a major failure.”
Future’s partnership with its cloud provider ReScale (a dedicated simulation hardware provider which uses most of the major cloud providers as infrastructure) allows it to run on large compute up to 256 cores on Amazon, Microsoft and Google. “We also integrate with a providers of DCM tools such as SNT Group, Schneider, Trellis from Vertiv, Intel and Panduit,” says King. “Our model needs data that might already exist in other systems and we don’t want to duplicate that. What we do is complementary to, rather than in competition with, these major software providers.”
Impressive levels of industry adoption highlight the appetite for simulation tools, like Future’s 6SigmaDX, in the construction of colocation DCs. For example, when Compass (a colocator responsible for advanced disaster-resistant, future-proofed DCs) needed to be able to capacity plan with confidence, it chose Virtual Facility to design and commission DCs that maximise revenue and ensure service level agreements (SLAs) remain un-breached.
“We also work with hardware vendors like Airedale,” adds King, “which uses our software to design their air handling units as they are looking at how it internally sets up and configures its cooling units to get maximum benefit from outside air conditions.” Elsewhere, City Bank in the US is utilising these simulation tools for energy efficiency savings.
The team at Future is well placed to react to current trends in the construction of DCs. “We’re seeing a move from chilled water and DX units with a cooling plant outside serving air handlers inside, towards direct fresh air cooling or indirect evaporative coolers on the external wall of the DC,” notes King. “To combat many designs which would have fallen over on a hot day, the cooling is done directly through air to air exchange without the transport medium of water or glycol. It changes the dynamics of the outside of buildings because you have the same problem – to deliver enough air inside the data centre to all the IT boxes to deliver processing power, whilst on the outside you have containment issues to squeeze all the large air movement devices into a small space with changing ambient conditions and wind profiles. Therefore, it becomes just as important to simulate outside conditions, which could be potentially catastrophic when they are delivering 30% of your cooling.”
Weighing up predictions for the future of the industry, King notes an increase in the complexity of control systems for cooling, moving away from individual air handlers to system-based buildings. “We’re not sure complexity means better, but we’re certainly seeing examples where the complexity doesn’t seem to be offering obvious benefits,” he warns. “People will try and get as close to the edge of the efficiency envelope as they can by adding layers of complexity with fans that ramp up and down for a trio for conditions. We’re not convinced the efficiency gains people hope for will be delivered.”
This reckoning with reality could be overcome with AI and machine learning for control systems. Future believes the challenge will be creating the ability to learn in heterogeneous DC environments that change quickly. “Simulation has a place in that as we move into automation,” says Leppard, “but we’ll give the machine learning something to reference, prior to a DC’s launch, to bulk up the start point and then allow fine tuning with the reality that ensues.”
The ultimate goal in 2018? “We’re focused on making simulation a part of everyday processes and we’re starting to see this with corporates. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to work with research companies like ES2 and The Green Grid on performance indicators to provide tools to help the industry and give better insight to decision makers.”
Which countries are leading the adoption of BIM?
Building Information Modelling (BIM) was first used by UK construction firms in the 1980s. Since then an increasing number of countries such as Germany, Austria, and Russia have also started to use it, but which country is leading the way?
According to research by PlanRadar, the UK, as of 2021, remains the leader in BIM implementation in construction when compared with other European nations. However, the company’s research shows that there is clear evidence other countries in close pursuit.
As part of the research into the adoption of BIM, PlanRadar examined government policy documents and conducted interviews to find out why BIM is being deployed in each country. The study also allowed the company to gauge construction professionals’ attitudes to digital technology tools in their industry, as well as explore where fast growth rates in BIM are most likely in the coming years. In addition, it looked at which governments have progressed furthest in making construction BIM mandatory.
PlanRadar says the findings are “a useful follow-up to the recently published Construction Manager BIM annual survey”, which pinpoints distinct barriers to adoption in the UK market.
While Britain has long been considered a pioneer in BIM technology, with projects such as the Heathrow Airport reconstruction, it seems that Russia is catching up. Even though its first BIM projects only appeared in 2014, PlanRadar says that the country “is on a steep upward trajectory”. According to the research, no other European country has adopted so many laws on standardisation and the mandatory implementation of BIM in the construction industry.
“Russia is arguably the most eagle-eyed nation for compliance and harnessing advanced BIM tech to drive efficiencies”, the company said.
Germany’s BIM adoption is also rapidly increasing as its government invests in BIM standardisation, skills training, and support for BIM projects, in line with its vision for the future digitalisation of the German construction sector.
PlanRadar research summary
As part of its research into the adoption of Building Information Modelling, PlanRadar has summarised each country. According to the company, here are the summaries for the UK, Germany, Russia, and France.
- The UK has the highest number of construction companies using BIM at level 2 and beyond.
- It remains the leader in the earliest use and implementation of BIM in construction projects.
- Since 2016 all state-funded projects must use at least BIM level 2, and this has led to a surge in awareness and use of BIM in the last decade. For private projects, BIM usage is advised but not mandatory.
- Currently, only 62% of small businesses in the UK actively use BIM, compared to 80% of large businesses.
- Approximately 70% of German construction companies use BIM at different levels. However, the majority are architects and design companies, making use of BIM in the design phase rather than construction and operation.
- Since 2017, BIM has been mandatory for projects worth over €100 million. And from 31st December 2020, BIM became mandatory for all public contracts relating to the building of federal infrastructure.
- BIM technology is used by very large property developers and construction companies that operate in the largest cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Ufa, Yekaterinburg.
- When it comes to legislation standardising and mandating BIM, Russia is the clear leader, and today there are 15 national standards (GOSTs) and eight sets of rules for information modelling in the country.
- From March 2022, all government projects are required to use BIM technology, and further legislation is in the pipeline.
- France does not yet have a single BIM standard enshrined in law or regulation, yet 35% of developers in France use BIM for their real estate projects.
- In addition, 50 to 60% of the leaders in the French construction market have switched to BIM, with level 2 as the most common maturity level.
- At the end of 2018, BIM Plan 2022 was launched to encourage construction participants to integrate it into their workflows. Still, construction companies have struggled to agree since there is no single approved BIM standard.
The research report concluded that the adoption of BIM is yet to reach its full potential in Europe. While the UK is currently the leader, countries such as Russia and Germany are evidently forging a clear path and have goals surrounding skills and legal frameworks. PlanRadar says that next year’s European BIM ranking “could paint a very different picture”.