When evolution becomes revolution

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2023-03-22 09:11:37

Data centre innovation has been accelerating over the past few years. In part, this trend has been driven by the ever-present need to do more with less, to achieve ever greater efficiencies across the workplace and workforce, to maximise profits. In part, the driver has been the availability of new IT solutions which have required new, improved data centre infrastructure to optimise their operational performance or even, in some cases, just to be able to accommodate them. In part, and maybe even the main part, sustainability has been front and centre of various data centre improvement programmes. And, when it comes to the sustainability piece at least, such work looks set to become no longer optional, but required by government legislation – whether at the local, regional and/or national level. (In fact, local governments in parts of Europe are already placing certain restrictions on the building of new data centres – largely as a result of their high power requirements).

One might characterise all of the above as creating something of a ‘hostile’ environment for the data centre sector. Expressed more gently, the industry faces some significant and growing challenges. Of course, where some see only challenges, others see potential opportunities. And, so it is when it comes to the data centre. Data centres owners, operators and users/customers can choose to sink beneath the weight of the digital workplace, employee and customer expectations; can stick with the tried and tested ‘safe’ technology solutions; and do the bare minimum when it comes to environmental improvements. Or, digital transformation, digital solutions and digital, sustainable data centres can be front and centre of your future.

Assuming you are wanting to embrace digitalisation, it’s important that you can identify a colocation partner who can match your ambition. Sounds great, but what does this mean in practice?

The digital workplace is very much evolving and, as such, quite how and where it will end up is anyone’s guess. Except to say that hybrid working, whatever the balance between the office and elsewhere, looks set to be the major feature, having come to the fore during the pandemic. While sustainability sums can be extremely complicated, it seems reasonable to suggest that working from home generates less carbon than commuting to the office. And that virtual meetings have less of an environmental impact than physical ones. 

The big question is, can your colocation provider offer you the necessary flexibility and resilience to keep all of your staff, customers and supply chain connected as, where and when they want? Patchy connectivity and poorly performing applications might have been tolerated when we all, suddenly, had to work from home. But, now that this has become normal in the hybrid world, we rightly expect the same high quality, enterprise level IT and data centre performance as we would in the office, wherever we are.

The explosion in digital solutions is in part enabled by new IT and data centre infrastructure developments and, at the same time, is putting pressure on this same infrastructure. So, the latest servers are underpinning much of the AI revolution; while the AI revolution is placing ever greater demands on compute, storage and network infrastructure, not to mention the data centres which house it. In this case, the result is the demand for ever higher density data centres – more and more compute power being delivered from the same data centre footprint. Can your colocation provider cope with the increased power demands to be delivered to the equipment racks? And can your data centre provider successfully and efficiently cope with the extra heat generated from the increase in compute activity? 

Liquid cooling is seen as an important solution for this evolving high density data centre market. Is liquid cooling a part of your colocation provider’s plans? If so, what type of liquid cooling? And can the waste heat captured with this technology be re-used elsewhere? And what if you decide to deploy a chip level liquid cooling solution – can your provider accommodate the delivery of liquid in this way?

Fundamentally, you need to be confident that your data centre provider can, within reason, cope with any IT-related demands you might have, at the same time as being able to demonstrate to you that they are doing so in the most energy-efficient, sustainable manner possible. 

As with hybrid working, flexibility and agility are the key words. You want your colocation partner to be able to adjust with you as you adjust your business – quickly, reliably and seamlessly. Today it might be AI, 5G, edge, high performance computing and the like. Tomorrow it could be quantum computing and the metaverse. Does your provider understand what these technologies require and can they provide appropriate, sustainable solutions. Sustainable, because you’ll want to be able to tell your customers, partners and shareholders that you are demonstrably working towards Net Zero.

When it comes to Net Zero, the biggest role your chosen colocation provider can play is to be the proud owner and operator of a truly sustainable data centre. To that end, we are at something of a transition phase. Carbon offsetting and renewable energy were the major parts of what might be called Data Centre Sustainability 1.0. A good start maybe, but actually not requiring many, if any, environmentally-focused changes within the data centre itself.

Data Centre Sustainability 2.0 represents, relatively speaking, a technology revolution. Yes, of course, data centre performance and reliability remain paramount. However, such performance and reliability will need to be achieved sustainably into the future. 

Renewable energy sources remain important, but with some added level of traceability. Diesel generators might just have to disappear. Hydrotreated vegetable oils (HVOs) are gaining traction, and interest in hydrogen fuel cells continues to grow. Lithium-ion batteries are already making significant inroads (although there is the lithium problem!). As referenced earlier, liquid cooling technologies promise much, allowing for the fact that, along with power, data centre water usage is facing increased scrutiny. Power purchase agreements have been around for a while, as has the idea of data centres feeding power into the smart grid.

And now, even data centre locations are coming under scrutiny. Traditionally, customers wanted data centres near them, to help ensure optimised application performance. Now, thanks to the improvement in reliability and performance of IT and data centre infrastructure, applications can be a long way from users and still perform as required. Are some geographical locations more naturally sustainable than others?

Moving forwards, it seem as if our old friend ‘hybrid’ will be defining many organisations’ data centre estates. Not just in terms of on-premise, colocation and cloud, which is already happening, as is central, versus regional, versus edge. No, we can also expect to see preferred data centre location increasingly defined on an application-by-application base. The vast majority of applications which are not millisecond sensitive might be hosted in a data centre facility where sustainability is easy to achieve – hence a growing interest in the Nordics, for example. Those that depend on speed will remain in data centres close to the application’s user base. For as long as trading continues in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, there will be a healthy demand for data centres in such locations. Such facilities will need to be environmentally optimised, but they might be so in a different way than those based in Iceland or Norway.

Tongue in cheek, I could suggest that the most environmentally-friendly data centre is the one that doesn’t exist! But the digital world in which we live demands more and more data centres. Yes, they need to be more and more sustainable, but we must not be hypercritical of an industry which is, after all, meeting the demands we place upon it. 

There may come a time when we are all prepared to make some major life choices (or compromises) to drive the Net Zero agenda, but, for now, the idea of restrictions around how, when and where we use our IT devices, with data centre ‘support’ in the background, seems to be unpalatable.

Energy-efficiency and wider sustainability issues are already major drivers for the data centre industry, with many colocation providers leading the way. Rather than being prescriptive about what your provider needs to be doing when it comes to the environment, why not understand what they might already be doing, what more they plan to do and work with them to mutual benefit? Very quickly, you will realise whether they are wanting to be a part of the technology-driven sustainability revolution, or if they are content to continue to evolve an environmental approach that is unlikely to deliver on the scale or at the speed required.

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