Data centres: The new cool kids on the block?

Data centres power the modern economy and keep the world’s largest businesses, websites and services running, but in doing so they are also the biggest guzzlers of energy worldwide. The industry is applying new business models and technologies to change that.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, Taobao – these mainstays of urban life and the wider digital economy are powered by an often-overlooked business: data centres.

But these data centres are also indispensable. They house the IT operations, equipment and software of organisations across the world, which stores, processes, and disseminates information.

They can be located on-site or outsourced to a third-party company that will maintain the computer servers. The world’s largest search engine Google, for instance, owns 14 data centres around the world – including one in the western part of Singapore.

Data centres are among the biggest consumers of energy in the world. In Singapore, energy consumption by the country’s 10 largest data centre operators is equivalent to that of 130,000 typical three-bedroom apartments, according to the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA).

Singapore is Asia’s data centre hub; the city-state already hosts more than half of Southeast Asia’s data centre capacity and is home to the data centre operations of companies such as Alibaba and Google, therefore demand for capacity will only grow.

Aaron Rasmussen, director of data centre as a service (DCaaS) operations at IO, a global data centre company, notes that “data has become a large part of people’s lives within Asia”.

“With the increase in wealth and development of the region, more people have access to data. At the same time, there has been a proliferation of smart devices such as smartphones, tablets and wearable technology,” he says.

Smart data, smart city

Singapore, like many other cities around the world, has also embarked on a national initiative to become a Smart Nation, and plans to use digital technologies to deliver better urban services to its people.

By 2030, data centres in the country will account for a significant 14 per cent of all electricity consumption in Singapore, up from about 7 per cent currently, IDA predicts. 

 As data centres consume a high amount of energy, it is critical to ensure the growth is balanced with regulations which encourage or ensure the efficient use of energy.

Urs Iten, director of data centre global portfolio, Siemens

All these trends point to an increasing demand for data and computing capacity. By 2016, revenue in the data centre market will be more than $1.2 billion, up from the $1 billion in 2014.

To reduce costs and raise sustainability standards – an increasingly important aspect for businesses – industry players are looking for ways to run these spaces more efficiently.

Urs Iten, director of data centre global portfolio at Siemens, notes that as data centres consume a high amount of energy, “it is critical to ensure the growth is balanced with regulations which encourage or ensure the efficient use of energy”.

“Singapore is moving in the right direction with certifications such as Green Mark for data centres,” she adds.

The modular data centre

Founded in 2007 in Phoenix, Arizona, IO is a new breed of company that configures the data centre to the application. This level of customization allows the firm to be more efficient and consume less energy than its competitors.

In September 2013, IO set up its Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore at a former Seagate manufacturing plant in the northern part of the city - the company’s first outside of the US at that time.

Rather than building a data centre like a construction project, and stacking IT equipment into an open raised floor, these data centres are based on prefabricated modules. 

This refers to purpose-built components that have greater telemetry and standardization, allowing customers to have greater flexibility and visibility. These modules have cooling, power, security and control systems built in, as opposed to old-style data centres that typically have those systems centralized, and built ad-hoc.

A clear advantage of these modules is that customers can add or reduce the capacity when they need to, and the cooling and power options can also be adjusted accordingly, saving on electricity needs. 

This “data storage as a service” concept operates on the idea that it will be cheaper, faster and easier for companies to add computing capacity when they need it, says IO.

Innovate to stay ahead

Erik Verhaegen, head of the building technologies division for ASEAN at Siemens says that the company is able to provide its customers such as IO with the best possible technologies, thanks to its experience in a range of fields ranging from buildings to process industries to power and gas.

“We constantly take advantage of the depth of knowledge available within our organization in order to customize our products and systems to suit varying facilities,” he adds.

To cope with the increase in data centre demand in a sustainable way, the industry is constantly coming up with innovations and new business models. 

For example, a standard practice in the United States and Europe among data centres is the generating of solar energy during the day when sunlight is abundant, storing that energy and then using it at night. Some experts say that data centres in Singapore can consider this solution to cut down on energy consumption.

Global financial company Citi’s data centre in Frankfurt, Germany, for instance, is covered with green plants, helping to lower the heat of the building. This is something that Singapore’s facilities can easily adopt, experts add.

The Singapore government is also implementing regulations that will make the industry more efficient. The IDA in 2015 announced its Green Data Centre Innovation Programme, which aims to help the industry adopt green data centre solutions and services.

The programme will also provide funding for research and development into green technologies and develop guidelines to build a resilient computing infrastructure. These will include energy consumption and the energy efficiency of the various components of a data centre.

Verhaegen notes that the growth of the market in Singapore has been exponential, “which is why it is important for the industry leaders to come together and discuss how our technologies and innovations can ensure the growth is sustainable”.

“We have to be open to adopting successful practices from around the globe. Companies such as Siemens are committed to helping our customers find the balance between maximum uptime, reliability and energy efficiency,” he says.  

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