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UK government in talks with datacenter operators over blackouts

Bit barns say they need diesel fuel supplies for backup generators

The UK government is reported to have held discussions with datacenter operators about keeping their infrastructure operating during possible power shortages this winter, amid growing concerns there could be blackouts if gas supplies run low.

According to Bloomberg, the discussions focused on ensuring diesel fuel supplies for backup generators if the National Grid should be forced to cut power. It cited the usual anonymous sources "familiar with the matter" who said the talks also covered whether datacenters should be considered critical national infrastructure.

A large chunk of the UK's electricity is generated from gas – 39.8 percent in 2021, according to figures [PDF] from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The Russian war in Ukraine has posed a threat to gas supplies across Europe, and while the UK does not get much gas from Russia, the country often imports electricity from the region when required.

The arm of National Grid which operates the UK's power supply, the Electricity System Operator (ESO) published a report [PDF] earlier this month that outlined potential scenarios. It reckoned there will be adequate margins through the winter to ensure enough power.

However, in a worst-case scenario it may be necessary to initiate planned, load shedding schemes under which means some customers could be without power for pre-defined periods during a day, "generally assumed to be for 3 hour blocks".

Datacenter operators have backup power generators that can supply electrical power in the case of events such as this, but there is always a chance that it may be more than three hours, which raises the question of whether the datacenter will have enough fuel to keep the generator running until the grid supply is restored.

Gartner senior director analyst Tiny Haynes told The Reg that his company published a research note in 2013 when Ofgem was warning that there would be 99.8 percent availability of power, so there were chances of blackouts then, and the risk is much higher now.

"There's a potential issue with energy supplies or gas supply to power stations, which will then have a knock on impact on not just the datacenter providers, but will also take out power in mobile networks as well," Haynes said.

He added that while datacenter operators will have UPS and diesel generators on site, they need to be fully testing that everything will function in the case of a power failure.

"The best practice is to test generators once a week, but that's just a generator test. They're often not doing a full load test, a failover of all systems test," he said.

"Operators need to test all the switchgear, that all of UPS systems work, all the generators spin up, that they have adequate diesel supply," Haynes added.

Earlier this year, The Register reported how Interxion suffered a power outage at its Shoreditch datacenter, but the electronic switchgear designed to change the power over to an on-site generator failed.

Haynes also warned that with clusters of datacenters in places, especially in some areas around London, it may be difficult to get enough diesel fuel supplies if the blackouts last for any time, which is hopefully one issue the government is aiming to address following its meetings with operators.

"My concern would be is if you want to resupply, let's say Docklands where you've got a large build-up of datacenters. I mean, you've got Sovereign House, you've got Global Switch, you've got Telehouse, you're gonna have a huge demand for fuel to be shipped into that area. Is there sufficient capacity?"

Operators could face reputational damage and the cost of service level agreement (SLA) breaches if they are unable to keep up and running, according to Haynes.

"It's usually service credits for outage, but if you're running a Tier 3 datacenter, you need to be providing at least a 99.982 percent availability, and that is minutes per month, so if you go down for a few hours, then it's gonna get very expensive very quickly," he said.

We asked several UK datacenter operators if they had taken any extra steps to ensure uptime this winter, but most were strangely unwilling to speak to us about this topic.

One company that did respond is Amazon Web Services, which told us that "AWS continuously monitors and manages our datacenter facilities worldwide. Each of our facilities has contingency plans and we ensure that each of our facilities performs continuous readiness checks. For example, we monitor and test for proper configuration of our electrical distribution systems, the health of our generators, fuel quantity on-hand, and readiness of additional fuel supply."

AWS insisted that: "This issue does not pose a risk to AWS services at this time. We work closely with utility providers in each region to identify and review risks to utility supply, and coordinate any AWS response to a utility risk or request should the need arise." ®

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