Four of Aurecon’s Data and ICT experts explore the latest thinking surrounding the current and future state of data centres globally
Peter Greaves – Expertise leader, Data & ICT Facilities
Jaco Blignaut – Technical Director, Buildings
Dirk Trollip – Business Development Manager, Property
Having worked on multiple data centre projects and being able to partner with clients who are currently planning new data centre roll-outs, what do you think the current trends in the data centre environment are?
A more integrated approach to energy efficiency
Peter: Currently, everyone is focused on energy efficiency, but this is starting to extend to much more than just the design of the physical data centre. In other words, the orientation of the data centre, and other passive design measures, are important, but so is how the data centre is operated and managed. We’re increasing focusing on how infrastructure management can be incorporated during the initial design phase to ensure that the data centre is using space effectively; that it is controlled optimally and that energy efficiency is a golden thread throughout all of the functions within a data centre. This integrated approach to energy efficiency is a major trend.
The public relations (PR) payoff from sustainable buildings and operating a certified green data centre
Peter: Besides reduced electricity costs, there are additional incentives to ‘going green’. Data centres currently account for over 2% of global energy consumption, so companies can benefit greatly from positive media coverage if they are willing to invest in lowering their electricity demand from data centres. Google, for example, has bought the entire electricity output of four as-yet-unbuilt wind farms in southern Sweden to power their data centres. Facebook, similarly, inaugurated a massive data centre in Lulea in Sweden in 2013 and this facility runs entirely on renewable energy generated by nearby hydroelectric schemes. This has gained both of these companies positive media attention.
In terms of ‘proving’ that a data centre is ‘green’, it is now possible to grade a data centre against the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification programme, which is a voluntary rating system for energy efficient buildings. There hasn’t been a large uptake in this yet, but it’s set to become more popular in future, especially as interest from large banking institutions mounts.
The importance of modular design and quick deployment
Jaco: Modular data centres are also an important trend. Modular data centres are scalable and they can grow along with a client’s business and future needs. The capital outlay of a data centre can be substantial, which is why clients are interested in ‘future-proofing’ the design of their data centre with modular solutions. Instead of over-investing in a facility that’s too large now, they can design a facility to meet their current needs but also have the option of future expansion.
Dirk: Data consumption in Africa will continue to rise and data centre owners, operators and mobile networks need to rapidly deploy high quality data centres to meet this need. Modular data centres work well in Africa because modular systems are not only scalable but they are also quick to deploy. Quality control can also be done during production, ensuring better designs and quick construction.
Indeed, speed of deployment is key. There is a huge push to get data centres up and running in South Africa as well as East and West Africa.
Aurecon is currently partnering with a large ICT infrastructure and solutions provider with a similar footprint to Aurecon across the continent to fulfil this need and is targeting, inter alia, financial institutions as one of the potential sectors in which to grow data centre business. As a company, we have also extended our network partners to include project management-, quantity surveying- and architectural companies that specialise in data centres. These relationships are helping us to offer complimentary services and more benefits to our clients.
Data quality is becoming increasingly important
Dirk: In Africa, the quality of data networks is increasing rapidly, thanks to mounting efforts by mobile operators. This greater emphasis on the quality of data is a global trend as more clients, particularly banks and insurance companies, need better quality data, leading to the creation of higher quality networks such as 4G technology like LTE (4th Generation Long-Term Evolution, a new wireless communication standard).
How is location impacting the projects that are being planned and currently underway?
Peter: Clients are also more educated about the impact that the location of a data centre has on minimising costs. Location has become a key concern among data centre owners and operators. Some governments, specifically Norway, are setting up business parks and locations with the goal of attracting data centres. Temperate climates and the ability to use natural resources to cool the centres are huge draw cards..
Jaco: Besides choosing a location with ambient conditions, more focus needs to be placed on how the natural orientation and whether the resources within the vicinity can help you run the data centre efficiently (for example, setting up a data centre next to a power plant).
Dirk: Data centre owners and operators know that renewable energy is the ideal option to power a data centre, which is why they are integrating this into the design of data centres. In Africa, geothermal and solar energy are viable options, so it’s possible to integrate these into the design of new data centre roll-outs.
With all the new technology available and an obvious rise in data consumption as well as the need for additional, quality data centres, what’s holding us back from deploying cutting-edge data centres everywhere?
Peter: As an industry, we need to be brave and be prepared to be the first to latch on to new technologies, whether it’s new IT infrastructure or integrating renewable energy into the design of large-scale data centres. It’s understandable that nobody wants to be the guinea pig when it comes to deploying the latest technology, but thorough research and understanding the time-frames involved in seeing a return on investment is key – and that’s something that we can help clients with.
Jaco:Cost is the main inhibitor when it comes to deploying cutting-edge technology. The technology involved with almost anything relating to data centres, from the servers and IT racks to the technology used to build the actual facility, advances so fast that the infrastructure isn’t always able to keep up. This is why modular systems work so well – because you don’t have to upgrade your entire facility each year (which would not be affordable). With modular data centres, you can build with a 5 – 10 year lifespan in mind.
Dirk: In Africa, the ability to minimise project risks by partnering with several experienced, reliable and reputable contractors with specialist skills in different areas is key. Using a single contractor, or a ‘turnkey’ approach to projects is fraught with risk. The trend is definitely moving toward investing in quality services and budgeting for expertise to make sure that everything from the power, HVAC and electronics work optimally, as well as investing in a future-proofed design. Cost is a challenge, but an increasing number of clients want premium services, which produce the best possible designs and higher quality results.
What might the data centre landscape look like in 20 years’ time?
Peter: Cooling infrastructure is a huge part of any data centre setup. Currently, data centres are kept cool from air that gets passed across the server racks by a complex connection of compressors, HVAC systems and chillers. I think immersion cooling is a possibility in the future – entailing tanks of liquid coolant which servers are submerged in, instead of using air to cool the racks. If this works out, it will eliminate the need for traditional HVAC systems in a data centre.There are still many challenges surrounding this option, but it is something that we are testing.
Jaco: In a perfect world, the need for cooling will be eliminated in 20 years’ time. My desktop computer runs at ambient conditions (something that wasn’t possible many years ago), so there’s no reason to believe that the same couldn’t occur with data centres, thanks to technological developments. In addition, I would like to think massive data centres will cease to exist because they are so expensive to build and not as flexible as modular systems, which means they’re not really an asset.
Dirk: Indeed, I also believe there will be many small data centres – in the cloud, some of them networked, many of them interconnected. Data centres will be dispersed throughout Africa, bringing them closer to their users. They will also be smaller and operate within a network of other data centres.