In 1960, a young computer engineer by the name of Douglas Engelbart introduced the electronics industry to the remarkably simple but ground-breaking concept of 'scaling'. Engelbart, who would later go on to co-invent the computer mouse and other personal computing technologies, predicted that all electronic circuits would be made smaller at an accelerating pace.
And they were. Doing more with less brought with it startling technological advancements.
The latest smartphone models such as the iPhone 13 have advanced processors with billions of transistors and the ability to process trillions of instructions per second. Even simple devices like USB drives or WiFi routers have more computational power than the large mainframe computers used in the Apollo moon missions. Despite this miniaturisation of technology, the amount of data we generate continues to grow.
It is often reported that 90 per cent of all data that has ever existed has been created over the past two years. But where can all this data be stored given that locations for data centres are increasingly shrinking thanks to the virtualisation of applications and decreasing physical size of IT infrastructures?
In 2019, pre-COVID, Gartner predicted that by 2025, 80 per cent of organisations will have decommissioned their on-site data facilities in favour of the cloud and outsourced data management. With many knowledge workers now working from home at least a couple of days per week, could unused commercial real estate be repurposed into mini data centres to help solve the storage problem?
Reuse, repurpose, recycle
In the US, long before the pandemic, the traditional concept of the shopping mall was slowly eroding. The loss of anchor tenants and speciality retailers, whether to bankruptcy, rightsizing, or ecommerce, upended many shopping centres. Real estate investment trusts needed to become creative and identify new types of tenants. Two things fell in their favour: shopping malls occupy vast spaces and have thousands of carparks. Hence, the 'fall of the mall' can be seen as an opportunity instead of an apocalypse.
In recent years, empty real estate, such as malls, has been repurposed into temporary medical clinics, healthcare facilities, churches, corporate campuses, co-working spaces, warehouses, fulfilment centres, and data centres.
While the existing mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems may require upgrading to accommodate a data centre's power, temperature control, and humidity control requirements, retail spaces have a suitable layout for IT infrastructure.
But what about commercial office space? Could high rise buildings incorporate mini data centres? Many businesses now find themselves competing for new tenants or retaining existing ones, often in previously prime central business district locations.
Locating mini data centres in commercial buildings could deliver multiple benefits – generating extra revenue for landlords and adding a point of difference to attract new tenants. Companies looking to reduce latency for processing and storage of massive volumes of data at the edge may favour a commercial building that has an on-site data centre.
There are also sustainability benefits. As with stand-alone data centres, mini data centres draw in raw power on one side then shed the electricity as heat energy. While in warmer climates across the Asia Pacific that heat is rejected into the atmosphere; in many countries, stand-alone data centres reinject their 'waste heat' into large district heating systems. Rather than wasting heat generated at remote data centres, on-site mini data centres may be able to return their 'waste heat' to the building's energy system, helping to offset carbon emissions already released.
The same concept could apply to heating and cooling systems. Hot air in the server that heats up water flowing through the coils could make its way back into the building's hot water system. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine your emails are responsible for boiling the office kettle?
If we combine this with the electrification of buildings, which pushes the use of appliances and facilities powered by clean electricity instead of those ran by fossil-fuels, this could be a huge step in reducing the carbon emissions of commercial spaces and data centres.
As Microsoft learned earlier this year, building new data centres can set our sustainability goals back: their Scope 3 emissions rose 23 per cent, as a result of embodied energy from their new data centres. This poses a significant opportunity for improvement.
The commercial real estate challenges
Data centres are facilities that house racks of servers and other equipment that require large amounts of power to operate. Repurposing commercial office buildings to support mini data centres in back-of-house plant space can take advantage of spare power availability.
Technologies such as immersion cooling can be used to reduce the space required and increase power density, while generating waste heat. It is also possible to locate immersion pods in plant rooms to take advantage of existing heat, power, and communication infrastructure. However, some modifications may be needed to the building and its equipment to accommodate the data centre, since not all commercial office building have spare power available.
Our hybrid future
So, what does the future of big data look like and what does this mean for commercial real estate? It is widely accepted the future will favour a mix of integrated hyperscale, edge and mini data centres. Many companies will still require a hybrid solution to balance cost with latency, speed and security considerations.
Massive 'hyperscale' data centres, of which there are more than 600 worldwide, occupy vast amounts of land. The Citadel, outside of Reno, Nevada, sprawls over a whopping 120,776 square metres and is one of the largest public data centres on the planet. Some other private facilities, such as those owned by Google, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and China Telecom, are thought to be even bigger.
Of course, land of this size is not readily available in most populated areas.
Ireland has imposed a moratorium on the building of new data centres in the Dublin region for the foreseeable future. Singapore's Keppel Corp has been exploring the possibility of developing a floating data centre park, which would be cooled directly by the sea while conserving the nation's scarce land resources.
In June 2022, US-based Subsea Cloud announced it is working to deploy underwater data centre units off the coast of Singapore. Cities including Amsterdam and Frankfurt are now stipulating that data centres be built taller to take up less space. In small and densely populated Hong Kong, because of the space constraints, data centres are located in converted multistorey warehouses outside residential areas.
Unlike hyperscale facilities, edge data centres are relatively small and located close to the population they serve. With latency being an issue for so many Internet of Things applications and industries, edge data centres enable organisations to optimise bandwidth and quickly deliver computing services with reduced latency.
The third type of data centre is mini. In addition to requiring less space than stand-alone facilities, mini data centres can fit in compact environments, even those with low ceilings. This means they can take advantage of unused space such as plant rooms, roof tops, vacant office floors or carparks.
There is also speculation regarding building data centres in space one day, although challenges including access for maintenance are a long way from being solved. While the potential of outer space for many feats is undoubtedly untapped, there is a much more realistic potential for doing more with the infrastructure we currently have sitting in front of us.