The Future of Megaprojects

Data Centres:
The New Age of Infrastructure

We rely on digital technology now more than ever. We work, shop, game and connect online. What lies behind this myriad of instantaneous interactions?

How The World Gets To Your Fingertips

The internet was first created as a mode of communication for the US Defense Department in the 1960s, in its initial form it was called the ARPANET computer (named after the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the US military). The very first message sent over ARPANET via the University of California’s SDS Sigma 7 Computer was “lo;” after researchers tried to type “login” and the system crashed before the word could be completed. We have come an incredibly long way since then and data centres are an integral part of the story.

A data centre is a “physical facility that enterprises use to house their business-critical applications and information”. In reality, they are made up of a myriad of elements: computing, storage and networking. The need for these data centres is evident. In 2020, people created 1.7 MB of data every second and 306.4 billion emails were sent every day. By January 2021, the internet was home to 4.66 billion active internet users. In order for this to happen, we have 3 million data centres of all sizes around the world. Between 2010 and 2018, the amount of computing done in data centres more than quintupled, and with the sheer volume of data being produced as of 2020, the number of data centres is expected to increase vastly in coming years.

What Does the Future Have in Store?

This predicted boom helps to explain why investors are starting to look at data centres as a form of critical infrastructure, some have gone as far as to declare data to be the “new oil”. While such a bold statement is not entirely accurate, it highlights a key trend: data is growing exponentially, and data centres are following suit. Earlier this year, JLL produced a report which revealed that 2020 saw unprecedented activity in the data centre industry. The rapid increase in cloud migration and technology adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic spurred huge amounts of activity. Despite a slow start to the year, colocation increased in London alone by 72%, with Europe’s main data centre markets expected to continue increasing take-up by 22% year on year.

The report highlights the impact of COVID-19 specifically in this boom. According to the Head of EMEA Data Centre Services at JLL, Jonathan Kinsey, the pandemic “boosted demand for digital infrastructure, including data centres, with many organisations needing to accommodate elevated consumer demand and expectations like never before”. This is promising news for the construction pipeline in Europe, which is also expected to see significant growth in the coming years. 

It is clear that the owners and operators of data centres are looking towards increasing both efficiency and sustainability as operations scale up. In January 2021, 42 companies and associations across Europe’s data centre market signed the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact


Environmental Responsibility

The vast amount of processing continually taking place inside a data centre creates one big problem: heat. Lots of it. To answer this problem, vast cooling systems are required to work overtime in order to keep servers cool and prevent system shutdowns. The environmental impact of this continuous process of cooling is at the forefront of many discussions regarding the impact of digital infrastructure.

It is clear that the owners and operators of data centres are looking towards increasing both efficiency and sustainability as operations scale up. In January 2021, 42 companies and associations across Europe’s data centre market signed the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, with the belief that the industry can and must become carbon-neutral by 2030. The impetus to make data centres eco-friendly is already evident, with CyrusOne having already reached the goal of powering its European data centres with 100% renewable energy ahead of schedule. 

The signatories of the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact have committed to meeting a high standard for energy efficiency through “aggressive power use effectiveness (PUE) targets” including an annual PUE target of 1.3 at full operational capacity in cooler locations, and 1.4 in warmer climates. In addition to this, they are aiming to meet a high bar for circular economy practices throughout their product lifecycle by integrating the practice of reusing, repairing or recycling as much as 100% of used server equipment. 

While this early interest by such significant actors in the space is promising, there are still hurdles to overcome. At the end of Q2 2020, the total number of large data centres operated by hyperscale providers (Microsoft, Amazon, Google to name a few) had increased to 541, more than double the number of centres operated by these providers in 2015. Microsoft has attempted to make its own novel strides towards eco-friendly data delivery by experimenting with an underwater data centre. However, these hyperscale providers have thus far have failed to sign up to concrete cross-organisational agreements to control the environmental impact of exponentially increasing data centre activity. 

The early focus on bringing enviornmental concerns to the forefront of the conversation around data centres is a positive thing. The rise of digital infrastructure itself also shows promising signs of connecting us more than ever before. Indeed, many project that by 2030, 90% of the global population (above the age of 6) will be actively using the internet. By not only securing the infrastructure to support this plundge into the digital world but ensuring that eco-friendly processes are embedded from the get-go, the future is looking bright for the data centre industry.

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Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Business Writer at Foresight Works

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