When Running a Data Center, It Really is About Keeping the Lights On

IT professionals often joke that their primary job is “keeping the lights on” in the data center. But for Electricity North West, there’s nothing funny about it. The utility company, which provides power to 2.4 million homes and businesses in the north west of England, has a government mandate to keep operating even if the lights went out.

With 13,000 kilometers of overhead lines, 44,000 kilometers of cable and 400-plus substations, managing the grid in a highly reliable way can be a big challenge. Dr. Nicki Clegg, who leads IS Strategy and Digital Services at the company, gave us a glimpse of what it takes to manage the data generated by the systems and its customers.

"Data is fundamental to decision-making across the business."

“Data is fundamental to decision-making across the business,” she said in an interview. “At our core, we are an energy delivery service. So we are managing the assets that deliver electricity in order to provide reliable, affordable and sustainable services to our customers, now and in the future.”

If the power does go out, Electricity North West must keep its facilities running so that it can restore service to its customers as quickly as possible. While a co-location facility is likely to have backup power, the emergency supply may not last for the duration of the most serious possible outage, a country wide black out, and that could spell trouble.

Electricity North West recently consolidated four data centers (two on premise and two hosted) into two purpose-built on premise facilities, which it runs with in-house staff. The two new centers have plenty of backup power in addition to the standard power capabilities. “They have to, because we provide a vital service, we’re providing critical national infrastructure and we operate within a regulated industry,” Clegg says. Even if one of the two centers went down due to an extraordinary event, Clegg says “the other one must still be there, up, running and able to manage our electricity network.”

As part of the UK government’s push for a low-carbon economy, the use of electricity in Electricity North West’s region could double by 2050. That business reality is driving a lot of decisions today with the help of structured data that makes up the bulk of the company’s operational information load.

Well-Structured Data

“When people talk about the big data problem, it’s not really the same for us,” says Clegg. “Yes, we will have a lot of data, but it will almost all be well-structured.” That will in the future include loads of structured data coming in from the UK’s national smart meter roll-out starting next year. That data will help to manage the power distribution through improved real and near real time decision making.

The company also uses some cloud services, mostly to support HR operations like training, recruitment and performance management. And it uses a third-party service providers to handle an element of service management and application support. “We’re not opposed to a mixed environment in any way,” says Clegg. “However at the moment, the most beneficial option is for us to have on-premises solutions.”

Clegg reveals that it is sometimes tough to recruit the best people in data architecture and telecommunications areas because the skills and experience are in short supply but has found good technologists in the Manchester area where the core IT operations are based. “Our catchment area is fed by a number of high quality universities so we are looking to attract more graduates and develop them to meet future industry requirements.”


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Nicki Clegg
Head of IS Strategy & Digital Services
Electricity North West

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