A cloudy future for data centres

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A cloudy future for data centres

A cloudy future for data centres

Nancy Stuart 05 Sep 2023
Contrary to widespread belief, our iPhone photos don’t actually sit in an intangible cloud. They are safely stored in data centres along with the rest of the internet. Data centres perform such a crucial role in our increasingly digital lives, and there is a growing acknowledgement that such facilities represent essential national infrastructure, yet is the planning system set up to accommodate their needs?  


So what are data centres and how do we use them every day?

In direct terms, a data centre is a building that houses computing equipment, which transmits, receives, processes and manages digital data for organisations. They also support every conceivable part of our economy, by enabling a vast range of activities across society, storing photos in the iCloud perhaps being the most well-known use. Everyone relies on them in their daily lives, and often without realising it for the most mundane activities (e.g. texting, booking flights, online food shopping, paying bills... the list goes on). Within the general umbrella, there is also different types of data centres. For instance, those which are designed for high performance computing where huge datasets are crunched to inform things like weather forecasting, or genetic research; the hyperscale facilities which support social media operation; or smaller scale on-premises data centres, ‘servers’, that support corporate IT functions like email. To put their significance into perspective, the Financial Times[1] estimates that there is currently around 7.2 million data centres worldwide serving global internet traffic.
The use of and types of data stored in data centres often links to their location. Data centres located far away from cities tend to hold data that isn’t dependent on high-speed connection to the end user. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the process of ‘edge computing’, which is where data centres are positioned near to the end user, providing ultra-low-latency data computing (i.e.… fast internet!!). For instance, streaming services may look to have small data centres in cities, to deliver high quality/definition videos to users with minimal delay. This can be compared to logistics developers positioning warehouse and distribution centres close to the end consumer to reduce delivery times, and it is considered that this trend may lead to the development of more regional hubs of data centres in the UK, in and around smaller cities.
The importance of data centres was amplified back in 2020, when they were being included in lists of essential infrastructure, and data centre professionals were given ‘key worker’ status during the pandemic. However, despite this recognition, the critical role of data centres remains largely unrecognised by most of us. In an article providing an overview of the data centre market in 2020, TechUK put this down to the low profile that data centre operators keep, as security is one of the priorities in bringing forward new data centres (anonymity aids resilience and security).

Development challenges of data centres

Following the digital wakeup call of the Covid19 pandemic, we are seeing the digital economy being prioritised by the UK Government. This can be seen by the Government’s ‘Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator programme’ and the ‘Digital Strategy’ published last year guiding investment up to 2025, which has the aim of making the UK a global tech superpower. The Digital Strategy talks of measures to grow the digital economy addressing investment and, most poignant for discussions in the development sector, infrastructure
While the Digital Strategy points to positive growth for the UK’s technology sector, there is no direct mention of data centres, which provide the digital infrastructure that underpins our digital economy, business processes, social activities and more[2]. There is also still no recognition in national planning policy, making the land availability required for the growth of the sector increasingly difficult.
Along with the lack of policy recognition, data centre planning applications face many challenges. They suffer from a ‘bad press’  with a perception of functional building design, lower employment generation ratios and power-hungry operating characteristics. There is evidence to debunk each of these prejudices, but perhaps the story on power is the most interesting.
Increasingly,  UK data centres are linked to  renewable energy sources, both directly and indirectly.  An article published by data centre operator, Yondr, last year highlighted that data centres are in an ideal position to stimulate innovation in the renewable energy sector. The article notes that hyperscale data centre users are now responsible for financially supporting new, expanding, or developing renewable generation sources. 
Data centre developments are also responsible for direct funding of upgrades to the electricty supply network, improvements that would otherwise not occur (or at least would not occur in a sensible timeframe), creating a secuity of supply for the data centre facility but also creating surplus of supply,  enabling development in other sectors.   
We are also seeing data centre developers  coming up with impressive innovations to neutralise the sector, and create enhanced roles for data centres. For instance, Facebook’s data centre in Denmark harvests its waste heat which is used to heat up to 7,000 homes through the local district heathing system. The technological advances in the sector are continuing to generate greater energy savings, for example Google has started using AI technology which interprets real-time data to automate cooling systems only when needed.

So what does planning need to do to support this sector?

We are starting to see how important this sector really is to our economy moving forward, and data centres are no longer completely in the shadows. As discussed above, policy recognition is needed to assist the sector and reduce challenges to progress such development. In 2018, the Irish Government published a statement outlining the role of data centres in Ireland’s expanding digital economy. The statement discussed the economic benefits of data centre development in Ireland; the job creation that data centres contribute toward; and the need to streamline the decision making process to promote data centre investment. The statement set out the Irish Government’s proposal to ‘amend the planning process for data centres over certain size thresholds to reclassify them as strategic infrastrucutre development’.
This was a bold statement, and one that notably hasn’t been followed up on since the climate change agenda has taken a front seat in policitcal agendas.  Similarly there remains a distinct lack of direction in UK government policy; the proposed reforms to national planning policy make no reference to data centres, which seems a major oversight,suggesting we are going to continue to struggle to support essential data centre development through the planning system. We can’t have a situation where data centres are seen as someone else’s problem – recognised as important infrastrurture but not here, thank you! National policy makers need to fix a position, to help guide local policy and decision makers through this cloudy situation (pardon the pun), to protect all our digital futures.

Image credit: Ian Battaglia via Unsplash

[1] https://www.ft.com/partnercontent/cyrusone/nurturing-data-industry-talent-fit-for-a-carbon-neutral-world.html

[2] https://www.techuk.org/resource/securing-our-digital-future-data-centre-construction-challenges-and-opportunities.html