Earlier this month, we were honoured to host a roundtable discussion bringing together senior leaders across the digital infrastructure and data center industry, to discuss some of the issues facing our digital society and the infrastructure which underpins it.
The event kicked off with an introduction from Jon Gravråk, CEO of Bulk Infrastructure, who reminded the audience just how early we are in the journey of digitation, which has been cited by some historians as the genesis of a new era of “collective thinking”. This presents an incredible opportunity, which we have the ability to shape.
This was followed by a keynote from the Norwegian State Secretary, Gunn Karin Gjul, who outlined the country’s ambitions to become a leader in digital transformation and innovation, building on the strength of its subsea sector which has flourished thanks to its role as a renewable power generation hub.
Summarising the entirety of the event will certainly not do it justice, so I will look to cover three of the discussion topics, regulation, downtime and the industry’s image.
For all participants, regulation which is coming from a variety of different directions, be it supranational to a local level, was understandably a key area of discussion.
Regulation of the industry has traditionally come indirectly or by self-regulation rather than a top-down approach.
This, however, is beginning to change. Negotiations on the Energy Efficiency Directive requiring data center operators to conduct feasibility studies on using their excess heat are ongoing and the consultation exercise is scheduled to end in May 2024. If passed, data centers with 100KW (with some commentators stating it might be as low as 50kW) will have to report their energy performance, percentage of power derived from renewable energy, water and heat reuse and power utilisation.
More pressing for operators is meeting the demands (and number) of customer requests to provide environmental reporting in the shape of Scope 3 emissions, in accordance with the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD).
Digitisation has transformed our daily lives and the speed of deployment has meant its impact on human behaviour is only partially understood.
The fast-paced nature of digital exchanges which are increasingly real-time and, in many cases, instantaneous has led to an expectation for services to be always on. Customers today expect businesses to deliver 24X7 within a complete digitised process.
For many of the operators around the table, this has inevitably led to a continual drive to achieve zero downtime, with outages of being a significant concern to businesses, through lost revenue added costs and damage to reputation.
The need to educate
The mass adoption of digital services by businesses, governments and consumers has emerged as a key economic driver that brings growth, innovation and job creation.
And crucially, to help curb our energy emissions whilst supporting a growing population and improving living standards, it is widely accepted digitisation and electrification must accelerate faster.
Integral to this ‘digitised’ way of life are data centers, which are the heart of the digital economy. As referenced by some operators during the discussion, improvements in design and energy efficiency have kept data center energy use relatively flat over the last decade, whilst delivering significantly more compute power for a range of new applications.
However, as all participants widely agreed, the industry has faced a recent image crisis, which has been shaped by the construction of the view in the mainstream press of the data center as the next environmental evil, as suckers of huge amounts of energy.
This is not helped, when the industry describes itself in terms of power capacity, without distinguishing that most of the capacity is for the customer’s transaction. After all, it is not the data center that is making the digital product!
The lack of education around our “dirty data” habits, from thousands of stored photos, videos and contribute to vast swaths of unneeded storage. Research conducted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, estimated that duplicated and unwanted images left in storage accumulate 10.6kg of CO2 emissions per person annually in the UK, based on the energy used and carbon footprint generated by data storage, either personally or on shared servers. Given there is no financial penalty for this unwanted data, this behaviour is arguably encouraged by cloud providers.
In addition, the fledgling nature of the industry has meant that both the government and the press have little in the way of points of comparison to other industries – further contributing to misrepresentation.
If we are to change this it will be essential to engage with politicians, policymakers, the press, and consumers to educate them on how digital infrastructure works. This, in turn, will help educate individuals about their own digital carbon footprint, which as we digitalise will become increasingly harder to ignore.
Many thanks to all the participants, who provided a truly lively and informative debate.
Conor Molloy, Senior Projects Manager, Data Center Industry & Green Energy, Bureau Veritas, Colm Shorten, Senior Director, Data Centers, JLL, Stine Bjønnstu Holthe, Head of Sustainability, Bulk Infrastructure, Craig Melson, Associate Director for Climate, Environment and Sustainability, techUK, Max Schulze, Founder of Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance, Emma Fryer, Partner, ERM, Bjorn Ronning, Data Centre Council GM Norway, Mark Acton, Principal Consultant, Acton Consulting Ltd, Allan Bosley, Manager, Management Information and Governance, Ark Data Centres, Oliver Weston, Associate - Data Centre Advisory, Knight Frank, Phil Spyropoulos, Partner Eversheds Sutherland, Loren Long, Entrepreneur, Technologist, Investor, SLEdge, Mohamed Dabbour, Group CFO, ColoWest Holdings, Heath Dooley, Senior Advisor, Global Business Operations, Board Member. Sustainability Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion Advocate, Fredrik Syversen Direktør strategi- og forretningsutvikling, IKT Norge, David Gyulnazaryan, Independent Consultant, OC Project, Damien Wells, Founder, SPA Communications Ltd, Chris Goode, Public Affairs Specialist & Account Manager, SPA Communications Ltd, Gard Madsen, Investment Manager, Invest in Norway, Innovation Norway, Luisa Cardani, Head of Data Centres Programme, TechUK