Why the race is heating up for data center space

 —  Article by Neasa MacErlean
inside a data center
Image credit: Shutterstock

All around the world companies that use and store electronic data are recognizing that their future need for server space will be substantially greater than today’s.

Ever increasing volumes of data are being produced as both consumers and businesses use the internet as part of their everyday activities – whether uploading videos to social media, processing online transactions or creating digital archives.

And the nascent ‘internet of things’, with its data-hungry sensors, will lead to a step-change in data production. There will be over 20 billion smartphones, TVs and other devices connected to the internet by 2020, compared to 8 billion today, according to research organization Gartner, all creating far more data to be processed, particularly in cases where sensors collect information and carry out an action in response.

This has big implications for the requirements of the rapidly evolving data center industry. “The global cloud companies are driving the data center industry and the appetite for space and utility power,” says Bo Bond, Co-Lead of JLL’s global Data Center Solutions group. “And because of this significant amount of demand in the marketplace, multi-tenant developers are buying and developing land on an ever-greater scale.”

In the U.S., nine of the top 15 data center markets are seeing at least 30 percent of user demand stemming from cloud computing, according to JLL research. “Every one of the large cloud developers is looking for scale,” says Mark Bauer, the other Co-Lead of JLL’s Data Center Solutions team. “Use of social media is the top reason behind the push for space.”

And companies are prepared to search globally for space that fits their needs. “A lot of North American companies are looking to set up data centers abroad and are looking for development partners to do that with,” says Bauer. “And big REIT investors are looking outside the US.”

Bond is observing parallel activity elsewhere: “There is a strong interest in investing in and using data centers in many European countries. And they are trying to find more suitable space in the Asia-Pacific and in South America — particularly Brazil.”

Searching for space from the U.S. to Asia

It’s not just about location; in response to growing demand, data centers are getting bigger. The Range International data center in Langfang, China is currently the world’s largest — covering 6.3 million square feet, equivalent to 110 football pitches. Nevada, Utah, Chicago and Bengaluru in India also host massive developments of over 1 million square feet each.

Yet tomorrow’s data centers are likely to be even bigger and more powerful still. In August, US-Norwegian firm Kolos announced plans for a four-story data center in the Norwegian municipality of Ballangen which is set to cover 6.46 million square feet. Access to energy, in order to maintain optimal temperatures, is a crucial feature of these developments, with the Norwegian scheme looking to ultimately draw on beyond 1,000 megawatts of power – the largest amount known for a single center. Other big single site centers tend to use no more than 200 megawatts.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is testing underwater data centers that lie within steel cylinders tied to the sea bed off San Luis Obispo in California. Since half the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the sea, the canisters could be conveniently located on the coast. Moreover, the Microsoft researchers claim a range of other benefits, from low energy costs using cold sea water to keep the equipment cool to oxygen-free conditions in the cylinder which is good for the electronics.

But Bond and Bauer see these kind of experiments as “interesting” rather than of immediate application. “If these developments turn out to be cost-effective then they will scale,” says Bond. “But being close to the data centers is very important for the IT companies — and new sites have to work well in practice.”

Finding the perfect fit

Finding the right location is already difficult because the local infrastructure has to be a perfect fit. “Power is the most important issue regarding infrastructure,” says Bauer. “How it is generated and delivered; getting as close as possible to the source; having a mixture of fuels, if possible including wind, solar or hydro — all these factors are vital.”

Some solutions are unusual and, because of the need for total security and specific temperature conditions, share characteristics with the military and nuclear sectors. Norway’s Green Mountain data center is housed in a former ammunition store; and the CyberBunker in the Netherlands uses a disused nuclear refuge.

Another key issue is connectivity, says Bond: “’Latency’ issues can be deal-breakers. You have to be able to connect into the users with total reliability in the shortest possible time.” The most advanced data centers in the world can send data hundreds of miles within a few milliseconds.

Yet what is advanced today rarely stays that way for long in the fast-changing world of technology – and the world’s cloud providers are aware that they have reached a strategic moment in history. “They know that the future demand for space and power is exponential,” says Bond.

They also know that the management of that space – particularly in keeping costs down – could also be a game-changer, and they are working on new ways to do this. Robots and other forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are being developed to run data centers. Robots can perform activities such as repairing cable connections in a fraction of the time that a human would. And sophisticated ‘machine-learning’ AI systems are able to model different scenarios and suggest solutions much faster than human calculations.

This is important for environmental as well as financial reasons as up to 3 percent of U.S. electricity production is consumed in data centers. “AI has become a central part of Data Center Infrastructure Management,” says Bond. “And, now that machine-learning means that the systems leverage from their own experience, we are going into a new era. AI will take the industry to the next level in the coming years.”

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