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Cloud demand spurs launch of Europe’s largest data center

Mark Shapland – October 2013
Portugal Telecom unveils €90m power-efficient facility as its ecosystem of IT partners lines up a stream of cloud-hungry customers.

As more organizations rush to adopt cloud-computing solutions, demand for data center capacity to house their application and data requirements has soared. According to the Cisco Global Cloud Index, the volume of data passing through such digital powerhouses will rise at a compound annual rate of 35% between now and 2017.

Anticipating that, Europe’s largest-ever data center facility has come on stream in recent weeks, providing the Continent’s businesses — from multinationals to SMEs — with a cost-effective opportunity to tap into the benefits of cloud.

Built at a cost of €90 million ($123m), the Portugal Telecom (PT) Covilhã data center, based in the country’s mountainous east-central region, is not only among the largest such centers in the world (if fully loaded with 50,000 servers and 30 petabytes it would rank sixth) it is also one of the most efficient, low-cost and secure.

“We saw trends were changing. Customers wanted to move away from having fixed costs associated with technology.”

According to Zeinal Bava, chief executive at PT Portugal, the three-year project to build the data center was driven by the foresight that organizations would increasingly want to source large parts of their IT infrastructure in the cloud — either as public or private clouds. It was also driven by PT’s own hunger for much greater processing and storage capability, he adds.

“We saw trends were changing and a lot of our corporate customers and small and medium-sized businesses wanted to virtualize — to move away from having fixed costs associated with technology to having variable costs.”
Lessons from the East

To help understand the kind of technologies and environments that would support and satisfy such requirement, Bava tapped into the knowledge of some of PT’s closest partners, notably global ICT company Fujitsu. As well as visits to Fujitsu’s UK data center, PT’s management team toured Fujitsu’s advanced data center facilities in Tatebayashi, near Tokyo, spending time consulting with Fujitsu’s board, including its president, Masami Yamamoto.

The upshot is a highly secure, energy-efficient facility, where staff access areas via highly secure and reliable palm-vein recognition technology, and where 250 security cameras monitor the entire facility.

The Covilhã center also boasts strong green IT credentials. It exploits its mountainous setting (Covilhã is one of the few places in Portugal where it snows in winter) and makes extensive use of solar power to deliver high energy efficiency. Outside the data center sit 1,610 solar panels providing low-cost energy, while the data center makes extensive use of ‘free cooling,’ in which low external air temperatures assist in chilling water stores used to dissipate the heat generated by servers and other equipment.

This means its power usage effectiveness (PUE) is a remarkable 1.2, on a par with that of Google, where the average is 1.11 across all of its data centers, and well below the industry average of 1.8. That energy efficiency has a huge impact in terms of “sustainability, CO2 emissions and cost,” says Bava. “This will be one of the key drivers for [customer] adoption of this site.”
Blue-chip customer line-up

That customer adoption is already well under way. By the mid-October launch, 37 companies had signed up to take advantage of its capabilities, including Portuguese banks Millennium BCP, Banco BIC and BPI; French retail chains Auchan and La Redoute; Portuguese media group Impresa; German wind turbine maker REpower; and industry, tourism and real estate conglomerate Visabeira Group — with the first customer platform for cloud coming via PT’s partnership with Fujitsu.

Alongside that blue-chip line-up, small and medium-sized businesses are also expected to exploit Covilhã’s cost advantages to deliver their cloud environments. “This data center is big enough and flexible enough to support the needs of many different types of customer, large and small, not just from Portugal but from all over the world,” says Carlos Barros, managing director of Fujitsu Portugal.

In recent years, PT has expanded its strategic focus beyond telecoms to data and ICT. And that has required a delicate balancing act of ‘co-opetition’ between the company and its partners. “PT wants to play an important role in this space,” says Barros, “but it relies on partners to source IT customers and is looking to its partners to help build international customers for the new data center. We certainly have more opportunities to partner than we do to compete.”

As well as in Europe, he adds, opportunities are ripe in Africa, Central America and Brazil, where PT has recently acquired the country’s fourth largest mobile phone operator, Oi. For example, PT’s data centers were one of the first worldwide to be certified to deliver SAP HANA database services in the cloud.
Privacy and control

There are still some hurdles, though, to some organization’s cloud ambitions. Bava concedes that privacy and the transfer of control over applications and data remain a concern for some. But the growing track record of many cloud service providers is building ever-greater confidence. “I have no doubt in my mind that people will embark on this journey,” he says. Taking a simplistic view of privacy and security, however, should not eclipse the business benefits, he warns: “Security is one of those simple arguments [that can] kill a good idea.” PT and its ecosystem of partners will work with customers to increase the level of confidence, he says, and one of the best ways of doing that is “walking the talk.” To do so, PT has already virtualized 63% of its servers.

Fujitsu’s Barros underlines the point: “Moving systems and processes into the cloud is much more secure than it was five, or even two years ago.” Indeed, he says, such anxiety is increasingly becoming limited to public sector and banking organizations. “Concern about where their data is going to be parked and how they will ensure immediate access to that data if they need it are becoming less and less critical as cloud has become much more secure and offerings such as public/private hybrid clouds provide systems where key data can be held within their own organizations.”
First published October 2013
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