IT can be part of the production line

4 min read

Chris Wellfair, projects director at Secure I.T. Environments, talks through the innovations that together are making it possible to ensure IT equipment can be on the production floor and be as reliable as in a full size data centre.

The amount of technology our manufacturing and industrial plants rely on now is immense.  The increasing automation of even the smallest production lines and their need for wired and wireless connectivity alone has made a big difference.  But, of course, there are much more fundamental changes happening in the sector, with increased visibility needed at every stage of the production process with near real-time data available to all participants from customer to delivery systems, production partners and raw materials providers – every stage of the supply chain.

The advent of Industry 4.0, digital manufacturing and concepts such as local production and digital warehousing are dramatically changing manufacturing for the better, making it more sustainable and much more efficient.

But all of this places huge demand on manufacturers to ensure that the IT infrastructure is up to the task. Whilst it is possible to use a single on-site data centre, such as a modular built room or outside containerised solution, this can lead to compromises in terms of connectivity ranges, or just not having technology where you want it – on the production line where it can be monitored.  But these are hostile and demanding environments for IT equipment, with heat, cold, humidity, and air-born particulates. No place for IT equipment, right?

For a long time, this has been a compromise that production and operational technology managers have just had to accept, but advances in the technology used to house data centres, means that they can be much smaller than you would imagine, whilst retaining all the same features, be extremely secure and cope with the unforgiving environmental conditions of any production environment from furness to freezer and everything in between.

Small data centres can be hidden away, using new self-contained cooling technology, tiny powerful servers, protected from the environment and physical damage, and even have their own fire suppression.

Big power, small spaces

Micro data centres have been around for some time, and perhaps unfairly have been compared to the comms cabinets of the 1970s and 80s.  Many assume they are little more than a modern cable distribution cabinet, as would have been seen housing 19U racks from old PABX phone systems!

It is now possible to squeeze so much compute power into a small space, that a room or series of large cabinets may be overkill for your manufacturing environment needs anyway.  Smaller form factors offer many advantages in overcoming site location and budget challenges, along with rapid build times and lower running costs.

Processing power alone is not the only consideration when designing a data centre, and this is perhaps where the new breed of micro data centres, which themselves come in a range of sizes, surprise those in need of a solution to their data centre challenges.  These small data centres include all the same technology that would be expected in a dedicated data centre or larger facility including cooling, environmental monitoring, UPS, CCTV/Access control and even fire suppression.  All this in cabinets starting at just 24U in height.

A direct liquid cooled micro data centre can handle as much as 80kw, which is impressive, but only if you need to handle that load – small units starting at a height of just 24U can handle up to 7kw, and still retain the same support technology (that is just 1.4m high!).  These new options, sometimes referred to as Nano and Pico data centres, mean that fully functional and resilient data centres can be hidden away into tiny spaces and disguised to sympathetically fit into their environment.  Units can be IP66 rated so they can be located outside if required and include all the filtration to deal with particulates they may encounter in the production setting.  Cabinets can even be custom designed to ensure they are sympathetic to their environment, with custom colours, logos, or even artwork to make them a feature. 

Regardless of the small data centre option you choose, they still require some serious thought to ensure the best outcome, especially if being used in multiple locations across a site.  Here are my top tips for planning small form factor data centres:

Workloads – Start by thinking about the workloads you need this new data centre to undertake in your production setting.  How critical is it to business operations or does it need access to other IT infrastructure that should be in the same cabinet for performance?  If there will be multiple workloads running, is there risk associated with them being in the same cabinet, if for example a power failure would occur what would the consequences be?  You must also remember that the cabinet may need to house its own UPS, which depending on the uptime it must maintain, could also take up valuable cabinet U space – has this been allowed for?

Cabinet distribution – It may be limitations on the buildings you operate from that have made a small data centre the right option for you. A Micro, Nano, or Pico size unit can overcome this, but you must consider how you will interconnect if more than one micro data centre is on site, for example across several floors or buildings.  You may need to distribute units in a specific way to ensure resilience, for example not putting them in basements to avoid flood risk.  Another consideration, particularly for listed buildings, is whether Wi-Fi is readily available?  Well placed micro-data centre cabinets can provide the perfect opportunity to create a strong dead-spot free Wi-Fi network for staff and visitors, that makes no changes to the physical structure of the building.

Cooling requirements – As anyone in a production setting knows, the temperature can vary wildly between seasons and depending on how many production lines are running at any time.  For small data centres this presents a unique challenge given the level of environmental control we are used to having in larger dedicated DC settings.  It is possible to get that same level of control, but during specification it is important to understand the environment the cabinets will need to operate in and across what ranges.  Also, what is the makeup of the air?  It is possible that particulates from a manufacturing process may mean specialist filtering is needed as well as a well-managed maintenance regime.

Sound pollution – Think about who is going to be working near your micro data centre and for how long.  A cabinet may not seem very loud to you, but you are around that sound all day! For somebody trying to do a job where they need intense periods of concentration or perhaps make constant phone calls, the sound of active IT equipment can be both distracting and invasive.  Conversely, it may be that a cabinet on a production floor can be louder, because of the noise levels that exist on the floor already. There are some fantastic acoustic cabinets on the market that overcome these issues in a small size, so don’t discount them – choosing the right cabinet can make all the difference.

Micro, Nano and Pico data centres can help overcome many challenges without any need to compromise on technology.  Small form factors demand a different approach towards assessing risks, but that should not put anyone off considering these solutions.  The technology has come on a great deal, and implemented well, is cost-effective and highly flexible for any manufacturing and industrial setting.