James Foreman provides his outlook on the Data Centre Sector throughout the pandemic, the immediate challenges he believes the sector may face and what he predicts will be future innovations in data cooling technologies.

How has the data centre sector been impacted by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic? 

The coronavirus pandemic has both thrown a light on the key role data centres have in our national (and global) infrastructure and served to escalate their criticality in supporting healthcare, education, home working, e-commerce, entertainment and social interaction.

In the early stages of the pandemic, the predictions were that construction sites would stop, productivity would plummet, and supply chains would seize up, causing long and costly delays to data centre projects in progress and in the pipeline.  Fortunately, these predictions have proven overly pessimistic, and in general, the construction industry has stepped up to address the challenges and mitigate delays.

Initial predictions also forecast a fall in demand for data centre capacity as world economies contracted under the weight of coronavirus restrictions.  But again, this hasn’t materialised, and demand seems as buoyant as ever, fuelled by the acceleration of technology adoption.

There is now a wider understanding, by both governments and the public, of the crucial role that data centres play in ensuring access to critical on-line information and services.  This positive shift in perception should benefit the sector whether it be in the permitting process, prioritising resource or attracting talent to work in the industry.   

What is likely to challenge the data centre industry in the immediate future and how can we adapt to meet these challenges?

The data centre industry has proven resilient throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but the key challenge is managing the development pipeline to meet demand.

New technologies will drive the convergence of computing and communications through gaming, IoT, AR, VR, robotics, machine learning, self-driving vehicles and smart cities.  All of which demand the huge bandwidth, high speeds and low latency promised by 5G and Edge computing.  

There are issues around land, power and utility availability, which in some instances are made worse by delays to permitting.  These may be eased in part by governments recognising data centres as “essential” thereby offering some dispensations.

From a design and construction perspective, the long-term legacy of Covid-19 is to highlight the need to improve project planning and execution whilst addressing the issues of skills shortage and sustainability.

We are seeing a lot of focus on sustainability, and the industry seems to be rising to the challenge with the key players in the market making commitments to becoming carbon-neutral or even carbon negative. 

The skills shortage needs a similar ‘joined up’ approach.  The data centre industry as a whole should look to attract, nurture and support new talent, new companies and new suppliers that can bring a new perspective, diversity, innovation and enthusiasm.  Let’s see widening the net as an opportunity, not a threat.

What’s the next innovation in data centre cooling technology?

Liquid cooling is attracting a lot of attention; in-row coolers, rear door coolers and particularly immersive cooling to support high-performance computing (HPC) technologies, which use typically +30kW racks.  The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in HPC usage within bioinformatics and pharma. 

Liquid cooling has the capability to remove the heat generated by the servers with greater efficiency than air cooling, saving on white space (m2), mechanical plant power, incoming power and generator capacity and improving annual PUE.  The ‘waste heat’ from liquid cooling is at a higher temperature and this offers sustainability benefits; it can use ‘dry’ rather than ‘evaporative’ heat rejection (thereby saving water) and offers more potential to connect to e.g., district heating systems.

What are Buro Four | Data’s key areas of expertise?

We are focussed on Project Management; that’s our core service.

We can add real value to data centre clients’ projects and processes by helping to define, plan, integrate and then manage all the aspects of a project from site selection to commissioning and handover.

We draw on resources and expertise across the business, ensuring best practice and innovation is shared and applied to all our projects.

We offer other specialist services to complement and support our Project Management service including due diligence, options appraisal and development monitoring; planning and programming; design team management; procurement strategy and implementation; governance and process review and implementation; and Employer’s Agent or client representative services.