When the UK won its bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, Tony Blair was jubilant – but he probably little thought that he was shackling the City of London, the UK’s top money earner, by denying it access to the national grid.
How? Put simply, demand for the cabling to provide power for the computer centres the industry relies upon has outstripped supply. The City has been told there can be no more computer centres until after the Games.
Before the Olympics was factored in, the picture was bleak; add the sports jamboree, and a system that was creaking has almost come to a halt. Despite massive demand, within the past two years only two data centres – Stockley Park and an extension to Telehouse – have been given the go-ahead by EDF Energy, which supplies power to the south-east of England.
The City of London has a power demand of 1,000MW which is expected to rise by 80% over the next 5-7 years, while the Docklands has a power demand of 250MW, which is expected to rise by 90% over the same period. Many companies claim that political prioritisation has occurred aimed at ensuring the Games’ success and risking the success of the UK’s finance sector.
“People in the data-centre industry are saying that they have been told the Olympics are going to get priority for power infrastructure,” said Steve Wallage, managing director of data centre analysts BroadGroup. “We’ve been trying to get power elsewhere but we are being told by EDF that they’ve got to find out what the power needs of the Olympics are,” said Alex Rabbetts, managing director of Migration Solutions.
The power demands of the Olympics are not yet known, according to the London organising committee. “A study to assess the overall Games’ power demand is currently being undertaken by LOCOG and the ODA.” According to industry rumours, the Olympics is likely to need 400MW and will generate its own power.
The problem is the sheer size of the Olympic project, which needs more than 100km of electrical cabling and the building of more than 100 substations, which is bleeding the UK of the scant specialist labour that can put in the infrastructure.
“EDF don’t have the ability to physically upgrade the network and provide the system for the Olympics,” said Ian Bitterlin, international sales director for the power company Chloride. “There is a nationwide shortage of electrical engineers because it is not a fashionable job.”
But rumours still abound about EDF refusing to provide new connections to the grid – rumours denied by the government and the power company. “The Olympics are a key priority, but not at the expense of other sectors of the economy,” said a spokesman for the Department for Culture Media and Sport.
Still, the power supplies for the Olympics are going in and power in the Docklands and the City is not. The situation is so dire that at Data Centres Europe, a conference organised by BroadGroup in London last month, one City data centre manager asked delegates if they knew influential people in EDF so that he could “jump the queue” of companies waiting to be told that they will get access to power.
“The reasons for the power shortage range from the Olympics to the need to upgrade the system generally,” said Chris Crosby, vice-president of Digital Realty, the largest provider of data centres in the world. “There is the potential now for London to go technology-dry because of the lack of power. If you add in the mayor’s office’s proposals on CO2 emissions, soon there could be no data centres in London.” A spokesman for new London mayor Boris Johnson said that the administration was still “bedding in” and had yet to take a position on the power infrastructure demands of the Olympics or CO2 plans.
People could lose power
Those companies that are not bound by regulations to stay close to the financial markets are moving either outside of the M25, or further afield to Birmingham, the north of England or the Isle of Man, while others are leaving the country.
Nonessential computing functions such as backups are being moved away, everything else is on short rations. “In Europe over 85% of those that have revenues over €1bn(£796m) now have two data centres; some have more,” said Crosby. “One issue is the shortage of power and the expense of it because of connection costs, another is the sheer length of time it takes to sort power out if you do find somewhere. In London everything takes 8-12 months longer than anywhere else.”
As a result of the power-connection crunch, companies wishing to expand their data centres in the Docklands and the City have been told by EDF that there can be no more data centres. A spokesman for EDF said: “We advise all our customers to give us as much advance notice as possible as soon as they are aware that their power needs are going to increase significantly.”
Telehouse, which is currently running the computer network for the Beijing Olympics, has been allowed to expand. It is also, coincidentally, to supply the server space for the 9,000-plus servers that will be needed for the 2012 Olympics.
“We have got short-term capacity and long-term capacity,” said Bob Harris, Telehouse’s Technical Services director. “We have been talking to EDF since 2001.” According to him, once the Olympics is catered for, there will still be space for another 20,000 servers for business.
“The only problem with that is that it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of the demand,” said Migration Solutions’ Rabbetts, who provides server space to big business. “One of our clients, a household name in the UK, has three 12,000 server sites alone.”
Writen by Peter Warren, first appeared in the The Guardian, 29 th of May, 2008