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025 / Data Centres

By Khaled Abou Alfa • Published 5th of May, 2020

A revolution, by it’s very definition, transforms a society. It overthrows the existing status quo for a new system. Sometimes we are all willing participants. More often than not, we are passengers, swept away by the inertia.

The first industrial revolution brought together the power of steam, coal and water. It moved us away from villages and into cities. The second industrial revolution built upon the previous revolution with the introduction of electricity. This enabled mass production. It moved us from cities to countries and across continents. Computers defined the third industrial revolution. It introduced the internet which broke down barriers of communication and made us truly global.

Steam. Electricity. Digital.

It is not decided whether we are standing at the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution or a natural extension of the third revolution. The distinction between the two will come from the speed, scale and scope that far exceeds what has come before.

The engine at the very core of this revolution is the data centre.

Lexicon

Energy Usage

Over the last decade, the emergence of data centres have proliferated across the world. At the end of 2017, there were around 400 hyperscale’ data centres1 located around the world. With that number now exceeding 500, it takes around two years to build 100 hyperscale data centres.

As the industry has grown there has been an increased scrutiny over the energy usage of these facilities. Some have responded by publishing an impressive amount of information. This is a different approach to much of the built environment where energy usage data is less readily available (be they public or private).

2018 Total Electrical consumption used for all services (not just data centres). Sources2

While these numbers may seem exceptionally large, data centres account for around 1% of all global energy use. What’s more impressive is the fact that these values have remained flat since 2015. Furthermore, the expectation is to remain at similar levels through 2021, while roughly doubling workloads. This has been achieved through the introduction of ever more efficient servers that operate at higher temperatures. The conversation shifted a while ago, from whether the servers can run at a particular temperature, to whether or not the squishy human maintaining that server can survive.

No discussion about the energy in data centres is complete without a reference to power usage effectiveness (PUE). PUE is amount of energy used across an entire facility (cooling, overheads, etc) against the energy delivered to IT equipment. The industry average PUE, based on the latest published data from the Uptime Institute, for 2019 is 1.67. This value has not moved in a meaningful manner for a decade. This is inspight of the efforts by both Google (PUE of 1.09) and Facebook (PUE of 1.11) who continue to either maintain or lower their PUE at much lower levels.

For years the technology industry has been under scrutiny over the fact that these are buildings made for machines and not humans. Buildings that extract and use significant amounts of energy resources. Buildings that are under utilized. There is both anecdotal and hard evidence to support this belief.

When the pandemic hit, the industry saw a considerable increase in usage. Teachers. Consultants. Writers. Engineers. Architects. Everyone that could migrated their work away from office based servers and into the cloud. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the internet finally broke. Yet there were no catastrophic failures or a deluge of stories of technology companies not being able to handle the different type and often concentrated load. The infrastructure held together3.

In 2014 a study was released by the Anthesis Group which claimed that 30% of all data centre servers are comatose. These are servers that have been running for 6 months or longer and have not performed any computing tasks. This study was conducted again in 2017 with a larger user base and showed that in fact this number is closer to 25%.

At these scales, this is a poor use of resources and clearly the industry as a whole has a lot to aspire towards.

Green Credentials

Since 2010, Greenpeace has been tracking the major technology companies, giving them a credit score and then targeting the worst offenders. Concentrating on the major players was key to normalising the use of renewable energies to power these facilities. Still, there is much work left as major players such as Amazon, Netflix, Twitter and Tencent are far removed from a green reality.

In 2007 Google announced that they would be carbon neutral (refer to issue 009 for more on carbon neutrality) by the end of that year. To achieve this goal they outlined three actions they would take:

  1. Reduce energy consumption;
  2. Invest in and use renewable energy sources; and
  3. purchase of carbon offsets.

In 2010, a fourth action, and arguable the most significant action was included in this list. This is the use of power purchasing agreements (PPA) - which are renewable power projects with signed long term contracts. The final action that is used, although begrudgingly is the introduction of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). These cover the gaps (due to seasonal changes which bring fluctuations in power generated from renewable sources).

This is the blueprint that others in the industry are following. The exact mix of all four actions varies from company to company. It is telling how this adoption has become a major focal point these companies want or often need to tell the world.

Google

In September 2019, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai gave a summary of Google’s biggest renewable energy purchase. To appreciate the scale, he compares the energy used by the company he steers to countries the size of Lithuania and Uruguay. They used to compare themselves to Luxembourg. So vast is their economic buying power that they drive very meaningful changes in the means that their energy is generated. This is fortunate, considering they are the largest player in this field.

Microsoft

Microsoft recently surprised by announcing their ambition to going carbon negative by 2030 and carbon neutral since they started by 2050. It’s a moonshot, but it signals ambition and intent, that is rarely seen in other sectors and industries. As one of the larger players in this field this change in direction is a welcome one. They have a lot of ground to cover as they are currently tracking at around 50% of the power coming from renewable sources.

Facebook

Facebook is also on track to achieving significant steps in their renewable energy story. Their aim is to support their facilities from 100% renewable energy by 2020. They are currently using renewable sources to power 75% of their requirements. 4

Apple

Apple’s foray into the data centre world has been slower than others. It has been a purposeful one and will continue to grow, although anyone familiar with the company knows that they operate at their own pace. In 2018, they achieved their goal of sourcing their power consumption from 100% renewable energy sources.

While the vast majority of data centre projects might not signal a space for architectural innovation, deep pockets introduce an interesting dichotomy. While we are unlikely to see a Fosters & Partners data centre any time soon, there are some wildly interesting ideas happening in this space.

Each company has any number of individual selection criterion used to determine the location of a new data centre. This has led to a number of facilities built in unexpected locations. In Sweden, Bahnhof have repurposed a nuclear bunker. Iron Mountain have repurposed an old limestone mine. while Google have reused an abandoned paper mill.

While the general perception of data centres is that they are ugly industrial boxes, the concept work that has been established for the Kolos data centre in Norway shows that there is room to create something spectacular. Unfortunately, this concept doesn’t seem to have moved very far. The project appears to have gotten through a first series of funding with no new progress to report since 2017.

Finally, Microsoft has taken a different course and over the last 2 years has tried to answer the question, when is a data centre not a building? Answer: when its located underwater in cylinders. The promise for Microsoft’s Project Natick, is to develop a submersible data centre that can provide connectivity in Africa and South America,without having to build anything on land. They have even carried out studies to understand the impact of these data centres on the local wildlife.

IDC reports that by 2025 49% of the world’s stored data will reside in public cloud environments. This need is fueled by the needs of evolving technologies in automated technologies and 5G. We’re going to need’ more data centres. The data centre industry has grown to become a significant element of the built environment. This factory doesn’t have thousands of people toiling away, rather people have been replaced with servers and these servers are hungry.

Some players in this field are trying to be good global citizens, however there are many who either don’t care or are not compelled to act better. We need to maintain pressure on the manufacturers of the services that we depend upon. Continue on the journey you are on or change your ways and adopt new and more sustainable practices.


  1. The exact definition of hyperscale’ data centre actually differs from expert to expert. While there should be an quantitative measure for which this can be described, this isn’t the case. However broadly, a hyperscale data centre should have in excess of 5000 linked servers, with an ultra-high speed, high fiber count network.

  2. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. Amazon is not very forthcoming with their numbers, however they claims to have powered 50% of it’s power from renewables, a number they publish as 2.9TWh.

  3. The worst that everyone had to endure was slightly worse video quality across Europe.

  4. The Facebook website does seem to have a number of factual error. It is not the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, that title is reserved for Google. The average industry PUE is not 1.5, based on the latest published data from the Uptime Institute the global PUE average for 2019 is 1.67.


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