ISSUE 03 | SECTOR FOCUS

They've got the Power

Where would we be without data centres? Video-streaming, share-dealing and Snapchatting all rely on them. As modern life becomes increasingly digital, they are mushrooming across the globe. We delve into this little-known world, find out what data centres do for us, and explore their future.

By Stephen Armstrong | Illustrated by Ange Hart

Data Centres

“Data centres are the centre of everything that’s happening in the world digitally – social networking, e-commerce… all the digital transformation that’s happening relies on them,” says Steve Wallage, managing director of data centre, cloud and telecoms sector specialist BroadGroup Consulting. 

Paul Lewis, regional director of Thames Valley and Data Centres at Segro, backs this up: “We are in a period of unprecedented demand for data centre capacity.”

In their purest forms, data centres as rooms filled with computing power date back to 1940s military computers like ENIAC. But it wasn’t until the 1990s and the dot-com bubble that the need for constant, fast internet connectivity created a market for huge server farms that gradually evolved into the pristine, dust-and-static-free rooms that power the net today. 

By 2019, over 30 per cent of the world’s largest software vendors will have transitioned from cloud-first to cloud-only

“Think of data centres as roads,” argues Gareth Coombs, director at the C-suite consulting firm Cambridge Strategy Centre. “We’re currently in the Roman era – we can see how useful they are but we can’t imagine the equivalent of the internal combustion engine that will shake our concept of life to the same degree.”

Indeed, it’s cars and roads that may drive the next huge demand for data centres as smart cities connect autonomous vehicles to the Internet of Things – all accessing and creating vast amounts of data every second. “The problem with that model,” explains Russell Poole, managing director for UK and Nordics at Equinix – one of the world’s largest data centre providers, “is that we couldn’t service that level of data at the huge speeds necessary with a few large data centres dotted around the continent. So data centres are going to get  their Tesco Metro equivalents – effectively  sub-stations in the heart of a city linking to a huge parent centre on the edge of town.”

Investment in data centres totalled $20bn in 2017 – a 100% increase on the previous year

That move is already under way – for brokers and dealers doing business around the world, tiny fractions of a second cost money. Any latency between the decision, the infrastructure and the exchange causes problems. Lewis adds that “major technology companies are also seeking to keep data close to the major centres of population, such as London and Paris, to improve their services to end consumers.” But it’s not just big tech and financial whizzkids that need the speed. Because we’re all streaming high-definition video to our phones, we all need more and centres nearer to us, as proximity means signals bounce around more quickly. 

Globally, the data stored in data centres will more than quadruple by 2021 and reach 163 zettabytes (136 trillion gigabytes) by 2025.

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