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How data centres have taken over the world
One of the areas in which we’ve seen growing demands for mezzanines and fittings is data centres. These collections of powerful computers are the beating heart of the Internet, storing information from websites and serving it to billions of devices around the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that without these structures, modern life would cease to function.
Our demand for data is insatiable, and this is driving enormous demand for new and bigger data centres. Yet their unique environmental and structural demands pose a challenge in terms of geography and resources. As internet-connected devices snowball and connection speeds increase, our love of data needs to be balanced against environmental concerns.
What is a data centre?
While some people imagine data centres as a single, contiguous entity, in actual fact they are a complex mixture of all sorts of different technologies. This largely consists of telecoms equipment such as servers, routers, switches and security devices, but they also require a raft of specific structural features, including cooling systems and backup power supplies.
The basic idea of a data centre is to store, receive and send data. Their primary function is to maintain ‘business continuity’. Most businesses conduct themselves through online or digital systems and software, from sales to banking. Hosting these systems and their information at a data centre allows them to continue functioning unabated by concerns of downtime or poor speeds.
Think of them in terms of your PC or laptop at home. It’s probably fine for carrying out one task at a time, but may struggle at multitasking. A data centre often has to undertake hundreds or even thousands of different tasks every second. This requires a lot of powerful computers to be interlinked, as well as top of the line network infrastructure, security and environmental controls.
The demand for data centres
The growth in demand for data centres has been exponential and unrelenting. One billion new internet users are expected within the next five years, and many more are expected to join the ‘Internet of Things’ revolution. Current trends mean that every electronic device we buy, from TVs to fridges to lamps to intruder alarms, will be connected to the internet, and constantly reporting on its status.
Meanwhile data hungry apps like Netflix are becoming ever more popular, and video quality continues to improve, with 4K resolutions bringing increasing file sizes, and requiring faster and faster internet speeds. Little wonder that we’re predicted to generate 163 zettabytes of data every year by 2025 – that’s 163 sextillion bytes, in case you were curious – and all of that data has to be stored somewhere.
The fundamental issue here is one of power. Running these data centres doesn’t just take an enormous amount of energy for the computers and other equipment; you also need to cool them down, which can use the same amount of energy in itself. In addition, there needs to be a failsafe in case the mains power goes out, with the biggest data centres boasting hundreds of fossil fuel generators as backups.
None of this is particularly good for the environment. Some critics have taken against Ireland’s policy of attracting tech companies, after it emerged that data centres could use up a third of all the energy generated in Ireland within five years. This will likely force the country to increase its renewables output in order to meet carbon targets, costing the taxpayer more money. Estimates show that only 20% of the power used by data centres is drawn from renewables, and that data centres could soon guzzle up 20% of all the power produced worldwide.
Certain design elements can reduce this burden on power networks, usually by limiting the amount of cooling that needs to take place. The positioning of servers is crucial to maintaining good airflow, as is the use of vents and fans to naturally distribute and cool air. Our data centre mezzanine floors take these considerations into account, and aim to maximise the energy efficiency of the data centre by fitting more servers into a cooler, better optimised space.
20% of energy being drawn from renewables is still far better than the average, though, and tech companies are making an effort to source more sustainable energy for their data centres. This is an issue of cost and convenience as much as anything else; some are even building their own renewable power sources nearby, so as not to be caught out by fluctuating prices or availability. Increasingly, companies are building new data centres in countries where the climate and geography are more favourable than elsewhere.
Facebook was among the first companies to harness the power of the arctic air. Its Luleå data centre was its most advanced when it opened in 2013, and takes advantage of its position just 70 miles south of the Arctic circle. With an average temperature of 10°C, air is pulled into the centre using enormous fans, while power is drawn from a dozen nearby hydroelectric plants on nearby rivers. Facebook claims the centre is 10% more efficient and uses 40% less power than average.
Big data, small business
It isn’t just Google and Facebook who are choosing arctic bases for their data centres, either. Iceland has proved a popular option for enterprise of all colours, and is a major beneficiary of abundant geothermal energy and cool conditions. Air cooling has allowed data centres in the country to do away with mechanical cooling altogether, saving as much as 40% of the capital cost on a new build. Web connectivity is also highly developed here and in Scandinavia, while energy prices tend to belie the higher cost of living in these tax-heavy countries.
Data centres in more traditional locations can benefit too. The rise of ‘virtualisation’ has allowed many businesses to downsize their data centres, compacting hundreds of servers into just a handful of machines. By running ‘virtual machines’ on these computers, multiple software environments can be emulated on one piece of hardware, essentially simulating a much larger quantity of computers. Hardware improvements are also reducing energy costs, including more efficient processors and solid state hard drives, which do not have any moving parts.
There are also a raft of improvements to the way data centre buildings are constructed. Features such as reflective roofs and deep water tanks have been used to reduce the temperature of the buildings, saving money on conditioning. Meanwhile, the online infrastructure is improving every day, most notably with the rise of ‘cloud computing’. It’s now possible to seamlessly link two remote data centres and have them work in tandem, allowing you to outsource some of the workload to someone else’s data centre.
As we use the Internet every day without wires or restrictions, it’s easy to forget the enormous amount of manpower – and literal power – that’s being exhausted to keep things running. We’re proud to play a small part in keeping the underlying infrastructure running, and look forward to tracking the developments that will keep data centres ice cool, fully charged and environmentally conscious.