Datacentres: dependence and major challenges
What is a datacentre?
A datacentre is a place where data is remotely stored and processed. It is a highly secure piece of infrastructure – for example a building or container – that houses multiple computer rooms hosting servers installed in rows of racks.
Key players and business models
Datacentre construction is very capital intensive, constituting a high barrier to entry. There are various types of players: telecoms operators; banks/insurers (e.g. the Crédit Agricole group’s Greenfield datacentre), which generally own datacentres for their own needs; major IT companies like IBM, Microsoft and Atos; pure players like Digital Realty and Equinix in the United States, OVH in France, Telehouse in the United Kingdom, GDS in China and GDC in Singapore; and internet giants with imposing ‘hyperscale’ datacentres, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.
There are two distinct business models within the industry: wholesale, where datacentre space is leased out on a wholesale basis, similar to real estate; and retail, where smaller areas are leased out and the required energy is supplied, as well as sometimes equipment like servers and racks together with additional services.
There are currently around 4,270 ‘colocation’ datacentres worldwide. Approximately 76% of which are located in North America and the European Union and over 40% in the United States alone.
Cloud computing (2000) and, more recently, Big Data have only increased the need for remote storage and data processing capacity. With the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT), the acceleration in artificial intelligence (AI) and the production of cryptocurrencies, this trend is not about to slow down.
At the global level, the ‘public cloud’ is growing fast – it grew by 22% in 2017 and is forecast to grow by 21% in 2018 and 16% in 2021. This consists of on-demand services, of ‘as a Service’ (aaS) type, which fall into three main categories: SaaS (Software as a Service), PaaS (Platform as a Service) and IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service). In 2017, SaaS accounted for 39% of global revenue and 41% of revenue in France, a trend that is expected to continue until at least 2021.
Rapid growth in smartphones and tablets over the past ten years or more has clearly changed the behaviour of both consumers and businesses, substantially increasing our dependence on remote data. Being able to access data and services wherever you are, at any time, from any device requires cloud interaction, making datacentres a vital component of the underlying infrastructure.
These types of IT facilities and equipment consume large amounts of energy – datacentres currently account for over 5% of global energy consumption – and give off huge amounts of heat, requiring datacentres to have air conditioning and hot air evacuation solutions. IT equipment accounts for around 50% of a datacentre’s total energy consumption, with air conditioning accounting for around 25%.
A datacentre’s energy efficiency is commonly measured by its power usage effectiveness (PUE), which is obtained by dividing the total amount of power entering the centre by the power used to run the IT infrastructure within it. The theoretical perfect ratio is 1, and most datacentres are working to get as close to this as they can. For example, Greenfield currently has a PUE of 1.48 (compared with a European average of 2.53).
Steadily improving the energy efficiency of datacentres – and thereby optimising their operating costs – remains a key objective for operators. Even with datacentres integrated into a ‘green IT’ approach aimed at using renewable energies, the effort required is colossal given the growing needs. To avoid a frantic race towards building more and larger datacentres, research is under way into innovative solutions for storing more data on servers, increasing computing power and lowering the cost of cooling systems. This would certainly help reduce datacentres’ energy consumption and environmental impact.