Why outer London is better than inner London for data centre locations

Written by Nick Booth, IT Analyst Published 2016-01-06 08:00:00

Is inner London a better place to be than outer London?

Let’s examine the human intelligence first. If you work in London, you will meet many people who absolutely refuse to go south of the river. On the other side of Lambeth Bridge, they’ll never tire of telling you, There be Dragons. They think that if they venture south as far as Croydon, they could fall off the edge of the world.  That’s what humans say. Oddly, statistics show that generations of families that actually stay in London tend to graduate out to the burbs, to places like Enfield, Kingston and Hayes.

However, when data centres choose a home, they are much more logical. They use structured data, rather than the unstructured nonsense and prejudice that passes for conventional wisdom among London’s condescenti.

When a data centre seeks a home, the choices are much the same as ours. The estate agents handling the search might call themselves commercial property managers, but they have similar criteria for their clients. They want a big house, with room for expansion, good civic amenities (good water supplies and at least three power sources) and understanding neighbours, who won’t complain about all the lorries delivering diesel and air conditioning units and massive batteries when the builders are first in. It has to be easy for those vehicles to get there quickly, which pretty much rules out inner London as a location.

And of course, access to the Information Superhighway is top of the list.

Schools shops and businesses must be less than a millisecond away. Not only that, but since many important members of the data centre household work in banking, there must be several fibre routes in Canary Wharf and The City.

It has to be said, these are in much better supply of suitable properties or land in outer London. Don’t take my word for it – there are extensive data breakdowns available from commercial property managers like Cushman and Wakefield. They can give you the structured data story far better than me.

But having grown up in London and worked in data centres, as a security guard, night shift worker and, once I escaped, journalist, I can give you the human side of the argument too.

It has to be said that these data centres aren't the most beautiful buildings in the world. It’s not hard to tell the difference between one of those massive Chessington facilities on the Cox Lane industrial estate and St Paul’s Cathedral. Until we broke the news to our taxi driver, he and the locals in St Albans thought that a nearby north London facility was a prison. The razor wire, security guards and CCTV – not to mention the succession of secretive visitors in suits – made them conclude this was some institute of penal reform.

As a native of Croydon I have to admit that the brutalist architecture of say, the Beddington data gulag, looks less out of place in the suburbs than it would among the Tudor cottages of Chancery Lane.

Still, I've had to listen to blowhards bad mouthing Croydon all my life, so now I want to stick up for data centres. They might not win any architectural prizes but at least they stick to their construction deadlines and don’t drain the public purse. Data Centres one, Cathedral Builders nil.

Indeed, it could be argued that they are a force for good for the local community. Their economies of scale help them run IT far more efficiently than the here-today, landfill-tomorrow machine on your lap or desktop. Arguably, they could leave less of a polluting footprint on the world than the mess collective machines are making. In the near future – as technology and standards change - they’ll use even fewer fossil fuels and even less water and the efficiency gap will widen.

The social impact of cloud computing makes for a much better distribution of the computing means of production, which creates more opportunity for everyone.

In the outer suburbs, a new genre of data centre is emerging too. These host the computers on which local businesses run all their accounts, email, online trading and entertainment services. Local businesses now prefer to have their IT run by service providers, but they prefer it to live alongside them in the suburbs. I saw this myself when I visited what used to be a one man data centre operator. He used to rent space, in trendy inner London, in a huge warehouse in Canary Wharf. But, as happens, the travel was getting too much and with each new addition to his own family of servers and staff, he started to worry about the noisy neighbours. So he eventually took them out to the burbs.  The air is nicer outside London too.

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