Luck of the Irish? Industry eyes challenges and successes

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    Leaders from the Irish data centre industry gathered at Data Centres Ireland to discuss the progress of the sector, the challenges posed by rapid expansion in the region and the continued prioritisation of green energy by Ireland’s data centre operators. Louise Frampton reports

    Ireland has been home to digital assets for more than five decades, from the arrival of IBM in the 1960s, to Microsoft in the 1980s, and is now home to some of Europe’s largest hyperscale data centres. While the data centre sector in Ireland has seen significant growth, it has not been without its hurdles, however. 

    Apple was forced to cancel its plans for a ¤850m data centre campus in Athenry, County Galway, after years of delays and legal challenges, while there has also been concerns raised over the impact data centre expansion is having on the national grid. EirGrid recently warned that the grid will have to be bolstered – particularly in Dublin – to meet projected growth from the data centre sector. 

    Speaking at Data Centres Ireland, Garry Connolly, president and founder of Host In Ireland, an industry-led initiative designed to raise awareness of Ireland as the home of the hybrid cloud, said: “There have been challenges and successes, but the hosting eco-system in Ireland has been brave, courageous and relentless.” 

    As a consequence, the region has increased the density of data centres by nearly 300MW, since the first reported issues over power. Solutions are being found to address many of the challenges in the region, including significant investment in the network to meet rocketing demand from data centres. 

    However, Connolly acknowledged that there is a need to tackle public perceptions: “We need to let people know that Ireland is an optimum place for data – not centres. The data centre is just an evolution of a tape drive; a floppy disk. 

    “In the 1980s, Microsoft would send out forklift trucks full of disks; it is what we are still doing today, only now we use fibre. Instead of making data centres and cloud sound technical, we should be doing the opposite. People aren’t getting it – they are scared. When people are scared, we face opposition.”

    Host in Ireland presented the findings of its latest quarterly update at Data Centres Ireland, and Connolly provided an insight into the continued growth of the sector in Ireland. The report shows that there are now a total of 48 data centres in Ireland, with 540MW of grid-connected power capacity, with most of these residing in the Dublin Metro area. This represents an increase of 57MW. While hyperscale remains the dominant data centre type, with 74% of capacity, the colocation wholesale market has grown from almost zero to 11% in the past three years. Dublin Metro, when compared with its European neighbours, has seen growth from both expansions of existing market players and new entrants at a time when competition has never been higher in the industry. 

    In 2018, Facebook completed its new facility in Clonee, employing 300 full-time workers; Digital Realty commenced construction of its new facility at Profile Park; Equinix received planning permission for a new facility in Blanchardstown; Keppel DC has continued to upgrade its Parkwest site; and InterXion has been granted planning permission for a fourth Dublin facility, having only recently opened its third. 

    Energy usage

    Energy use in data centres continues to attract attention across all regions in which they operate. EirGrid’s recent Generation Capacity Statement suggests that, by 2027, up to 31% of Ireland’s electricity use could be feeding data centres. Host in Ireland’s analysis indicates that today it is about 6%, but this could double in four to five years. 

    Rosemary Steen from EirGrid commented: “The Irish power system is around one-tenth the size of the UK power system and one-hundredth the size of the European power system. Therefore, a large data centre connection has a far greater impact on the Irish power system than in continental Europe. This means our efforts to futureproof the grid must be meticulous.” 

    She added that the scale of large data centres seeking to connect presents challenges, with electricity demand set to increase by around 38% between 2017 and 2025. 

    “To put this into context, this is the equivalent of the growth seen over a period of 50 years, between 1930 and 1980. This is going to have a phenomenal impact,” she commented.

    Steen said there is a need to work closely with data centres to address this issue. In Ireland, data centres are being warned that they may be penalised for “capacity hoarding” in the future. 

    David McAuley, founder and CEO of Bitpower, reported that to relieve pressure on the electrical infrastructure, many operators have begun to invest in on-site power generation facilities using natural gas. 

    He pointed out that a hybrid of gas and grid electricity presents cost optimisation opportunities (as well as challenges), and also avoids the 8% national grid transmission losses. 

    Further into the future, fuel cells powered by gas may be practical, offering efficiencies of 65% compared with the 45% available from gas engines. 

    Renewables

    Green energy remains a priority for the industry and the Irish grid reached renewable energy penetration levels of up to 65% (in a 24-hour period) in 2018. 

    Facebook’s facility in Clonee is reported to be fully powered by renewable energy and the company is now looking at investing directly into renewable power to ensure all of its facilities are self-sustainable. 

    In addition, companies such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon have committed to, and in some cases achieved, securing 100% in renewable energy sources for their data centres in Ireland. 

    In 2017, 29% of Ireland’s grid electricity was generated from renewable resources. By 2020, the country aims to increase that number to 40%, while the goal for 2030 sits at 70%. 

    The potential to recoup waste heat from data centres and distribute it to local homes and business is also now being tested in Ireland through a pilot scheme run by South Dublin County Council. 

    The first district heating tender in South Dublin will allow low grade waste heat from a local data centre to be reused for the first-time in Ireland.

    McAuley points out that data centres can further help improve grid efficiency by shifting demand or by running backup systems for the benefit of the grid (and get paid for it). The data centre business model is based on availability of power in an instant, hence over-provisioning of power capacity is normal. 

    “Until the energy and data systems can find a compromise solution, we will continue to have grid challenges,” comments McAuley.

    Energy efficient design

    Host in Ireland points out that tools like virtualisation, power usage effectiveness (PUE) metric benchmarks and hot aisle containment designs will allow for more efficient data centre operations. 

    Going beyond these established methods, new energy efficient methodologies are being implemented to further augment and ensure data centre progress. 

    The Excellence in Energy Efficient Design (EXEED) certified programme, a support scheme developed by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), includes grant and capital supports to bolster new designs and systematic technology adoptions. In fact, grants of up to ¤500,000 per year can be secured for organisations that are planning an energy investment project.

    Key to Ireland’s success

    “Historically, the success of Ireland in hosting digital assets has been down to the ‘five Ps’ – policy, people, pedigree, pipes and power. Today, the number one reason is proximity,” commented Connolly. 

    “Data centres are interconnection hubs,” added InterXion managing director Tanya Duncan. “To use the analogy of the airline industry, it is far better to have one central airport, than to have lots of regional airports, so all your routes go into one area. The fact that Dublin has the cluster is really important.”

    Concluding, she highlighted the contribution of the sector in driving innovation, pointing out that data centres are “prepared to trial new things”. 

    Once innovation has been trialled, it is capable of being exported. As a consequence, the Irish data centre is building an international reputation.

    A copy of Ireland’s Data Hosting Industry 2018 Q3 Update can be downloaded at: www.hostinireland.com

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