Covid-19 will accelerate the introduction of mega data centre campuses

The digital business case has been propelled forward five years. Since the COVID-19 crisis, businesses across the country have had to adapt and react quickly, setting out plans for staff to work from home more regularly, as emergency measures introduced during the pandemic turn into permanent lifestyle changes. Some large organisations such as Twitter, Facebook and even financial and professional services firms have announced plans to allow employees to work from home until next year or to do so permanently. By Simon Ford, EMEA AVP of CyrusOne.

This incredible shift in demand for cloud services has accelerated data centre construction projects as co-location providers look to build more capacity to accommodate this burgeoning traffic needs as workers continue to access applications and workload remotely. However, what does this mean for the next phase of data centre construction? It is possible that this will result in some of the largest facilities ever built.

Only five years ago, the average data centre size in a European Tier 1 data centre location was between 10 – 15 megawatts. It is now however not uncommon to have large facilities operating up to 40 to 50 megawatts, with 80 -100+ megawatt ‘mega campuses’ coming down the pipeline. The shift towards a hybrid-cloud solution – the combination of public cloud services and private or in-house computing and storage capabilities to run the organisations applications and workloads – has accelerated the demand for data centre spaces and capacity, particularly during the pandemic.

The Rise of Mega Data Centres?

Mega data centres have changed the data centre market, with high computing capacity, storage capacity, bandwidth, and ability to facilitate incredible amounts of data transfers. This advancement hastransformed how we work and connect with each other. Now with work from home measures being introduced permanently in many workplaces across the world, data centres will continue to play a key role in enabling the remote working revolution.

We are already seeing many clients bring forward their banked capacity to meet new demands. Today, all indications suggest that the European data centre sector may need to rethink their pre-2020 forecast to meet the new demand. With available land and green utility at a premium in FLAP-D markets, the viability of many future projects may depend on making the most of current sites. It is possible that this means building bigger and more efficient facilities and that 80- 150 MW facilities becoming more commonplace.

Future Challenges

Here’s the rub. To bring these much-needed data centres to fruition, there are major challenges and hurdles the sector must overcome.

  1. Land Availability

The most obvious challenges for data centre developers is in finding the right size of land to build these mega data centres of the future. Data centres already compete with other planning needs such as homes, office spaces, farming and other critical infrastructure. As the scale of Data Centre Campuses grow, cheaper land options will become increasingly harder to come by in the next few months. Governments in Europe and other developed economies are taking a closer interest in the land utilisation which may in the future limit the options available to data centre construction. A more recent example of this is in the Netherlands, where authorities in Amsterdam briefly issued a moratorium to halt further data centre developments until land can be designated for the purpose of data centre expansion.

  1. Utility

Data centres are built with reliability in mind and keeping servers running is always the utmost priority. These facilities require uninterruptible power supplies and water for cooling the air in the buildings as the IT racks can heat up considerably to dangerous levels. Data centres have come a long way in the last 25 years and today are extremely efficient when compared to a few years ago (certainly better than having racks in office basements!). However, they still account for a significant amount of energy usage across the countries they operate in. As capacity demand grows, the challenge for operators is to build new developments in regions with spare power and water capacity. Unfortunately, critical infrastructure is centred around urban areas which means data centres will continue to be built in those places closest to where demand and power resources are.

  1. Talent

The unprecedented Cloud Services demand we have seen since the Pandemic began has put a significant stress on Cloud Companies, Operators and Local Authorities alike. Skilled Data Centre people fall into many niches given the varied skill sets required in the industry and you could argue that there were already not enough people to go around prior to the arrival of this awful virus. Added to this challenge, the Data Centre 2025 survey, confirmed that 16% of global respondents expect to retire by 2025. This raises a critical issue for future executives and project planners that will not be easy to find, replace and manage in these market conditions, particularly after the COVID-19 crisis.

The danger is clear. As current staff adapt to technology changes, managing the various technical and hardware components of the new data centre is something few enterprises can manage. The pace of change will leave without the expertise or bench talent available to handle complexities ranging from processing power to energy management.

The industry must do more to attract new talent by raising awareness of the industry with educational institutions and career adviser organisations. Additionally, the sector must innovate to provide non-traditional entry level schemes, such as apprenticeships, to bring new blood into the workforce.

  1. Sustainability

According to findings by Energy Innovation, it is estimated that data centres and other digital infrastructure could account for up to 20% of the world’s electricity consumption and 5.5% of CO2 emissions in the next decade.

Making data centres more sustainable is high on the agenda of most governments, industry bodies and businesses all over the world. In Europe, the EU Commission asserts that the sector can and should be carbon neutral by 2030 and is urging data centre providers to take appropriate steps to achieve this goal. The data centre industry must continue to work with various Governments and create partnerships with planners and local authorities to create opportunities to introduce renewable energy to meet these ambitious goals. These plans not only benefit the environment and company carbon footprints, but also improve the efficiency and long-term costs in running, managing and building new facilities in the future.

With the renewable energy plans the industry has to become even more strategic than it currently is. Working with and educating governments takes time and ensuring that the provision of green power is available will be an ongoing conversation that will hopefully see results needed to implement the industry-wide change.

Data centres are changing and it is up to the industry to plan for this future or risk failing in its commitment and ambitions. The most pressing challenges around sustainability and talent must be on all of our agendas if we are to start seeing meaningful progress in these areas.

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