Data centres as digital linchpins

Data centres share a fair few things in common with aeroplanes: safety and security are absolute requirements for both, their technology is complex, they consume a lot of energy and both could be said to offer their services in the cloud. While in 2015 some 80 per cent of data centre facilities were server rooms owned by users, this is projected to fall to 72 per cent by 2020. The biggest reason for the change is that certain workloads are being moved to larger, more cost-effective and energy-efficient data centres. The traffic and storage volumes of data will grow exponentially in data centres that offer cloud and server room services.

Buildings in general and data centres in particular take a lot of energy to operate. Will all operators act responsibly as competition heats up along with digitalisation? The data centre sector is expected to consume one fifth of global electricity production by 2025. The availability of renewable energy is an important factor, particularly for the investments of large operators. So far, the Nordic countries have been highly competitive, but recently Finland has been left in the dust as Sweden, Denmark and Norway have scooped up hyperscale data centres from Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google. These countries have pulled ahead by offering energy tax concessions and renewable energy. The media has recently released stories about the plans of the US-based Silent Partner Group to build three massive data centres in Finland.

The competition for supremacy in cloud services is getting tougher, as the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has just opened their first two data centres in London. IBM, currently the number three cloud service provider, shocked the market by purchasing the software company Red Hat, best known for their Linux development, for a whopping $33.4 billion. The demand for suitable properties is growing along with cloud services. In 2017, a record $25 billion was invested worldwide in data centre properties. Investors are showing a growing interest in data centres in the Nordic countries as well, although the large cloud service providers still own their data centres in most cases. The latest transaction was the sale of a data centre property in Espoo, Finland by Patrizia in early 2018.

In the summer of 2018, Telia opened an open data centre next door to Realia Group in Helsinki, Finland. The data centre uses state-of-the-art technology and is hailed as the most modern facility in Europe: it meets strict safety and security requirements, uses hydroelectric power as a renewable source and fully reuses the thermal energy captured by its cooling systems. Particular emphasis was placed on ensuring the continuity of services and contingency planning.

The product-orientated business models of companies will change into functions that utilise customer- and service-driven technology. The internet of things and future applications emphasise the requirement of real-time responses. Real-time data is shared in the ecosystems that form around the data centre business, giving rise to new innovations and services. Response times may be too slow in a centralised cloud, and this is where real-time cloud "edge" services are the better solution.

New technology and service development depend on data centres

The importance of data centres as part of digitalisation and the modern digital economy is growing fast. They process and store data on behalf of their customers efficiently and securely by utilising cloud services and other IT solutions. Data centres also make it possible to develop novel services, including new production methods based on the internet of things, artificial intelligence, big data and data in general.


The number of cloud- and data-based services keeps growing, which increases the need for data centres. Large operators, led by Amazon, already control the lion's share of the market.

Competition for data centre placement is fierce across the globe. The strong points of Finland in this competition are the excellent international data connections, a stable regulatory environment, an overall high level of education and favourable structural conditions, including a cool climate, a safe geographic location and the good availability of reasonably priced energy. In addition, the government has prepared a separate strategy to promote investments related to data centres. A disadvantage for Finland is the country's remote location from markets. Investing in the development of data centre infrastructure would bolster Finland's data centre industry, which could contribute as much as €2.3 billion and 33,000 jobs to the country's growth.

Data centres to make up one fifth of global electricity consumption by 2025

As the number of data-intensive devices and services continues to grow rapidly, more and more energy is required to run the data centres of the world. Data processing and storage generate lots of heat, necessitating intensive cooling systems in data centres, which in turn consume a lot of energy.

New studies indicate an alarming notion: if the acquisition of renewable energy is neglected or fails, data centres may become a major source of pollution in no more than seven years. Up to 50 billion devices are expected to be connected in the data centre service network by 2020, and some projections put the growth at more than 100 billion devices in the next five years.

Research suggests that the data centre sector could consume 20 per cent of global electricity production by 2025. This estimate is based on the fact that the amount of data generated in the world is growing faster than ever.  If more efficient energy sources are not deployed quickly, the carbon footprint of data centres may reach 5.5 per cent of the global total.

Energy may account for more than half of the total costs of a data centre over its life cycle. More efficient energy use and consumption management could substantially lower both costs and environmental impacts. In the Nordic countries, the energy consumption of cooling will be significantly lower thanks to the cool climate, ample water resources and other factors. It is vital to reclaim and reuse the waste heat from cooling, and renewable energy has already become an absolute requirement for many data centre operators. Just recently, Google signed an agreement to purchase all the production from three new wind farms for the next 10 years to power their data centre in Hamina, Finland. Will there be enough renewable energy in Finland for all who would use it with ever-stricter environmental requirements to fulfil in order to combat climate change?

Security and reliability are key

The location of a data centre must be chosen carefully to minimise the risk of trespassing. The risk of natural disasters like flooding must also be considered, along with other external threats. Proficient data centre design, committed leadership, skilled personnel, sophisticated management tools and advanced maintenance are all part of safety and security arrangements. To improve the security of data centres, environmental and process-related requirements should be made more rigorous worldwide. Contingency planning for different disruptions and incidents should be included in designs and verified by testing.

Finland is geologically safe – the ancient local bedrock greatly reduces the risk posed by natural disasters. The Data Center Risk Index ranks Finland as the safest location in the world for data centres. The reliability and continuity of services are also important factors. The national power grid of Finland has an outstanding track record with a 99.9998 per cent rate of transfer reliability.

State of the art security and energy efficiency at the Telia Helsinki Data Center

The data centre opened by Telia in the Pitäjänmäki district of Helsinki, Finland in the spring of 2018 is the second-largest open data centre in the Nordic countries. The facility offers its services openly to all, and its design and construction were thoroughly informed by requirements on the security of the construction project, the environment and energy efficiency.

Both building security and information security were taken into account in the design. The building is nearly impenetrable, as the entrances are closed with bollards, every door has an electronic lock and the offices are protected by a guard and glass gates. Inside, partially underground, there are four floors of server rooms seven metres high with a metre of technical space below.

Photo: Realia Group. Telia Helsinki Data Center in Pitäjänmäki, Helsinki.

Reliability is the be-all and end-all of data storage, and hence every function of the security measures is at least doubled. The continuity of services and contingency planning are absolutely essential. The facility uses the newest technology, including the most advanced data processing, electrical and fire-fighting systems in the world. Automation is used to minimise the number of manual tasks. Data storage takes place in compartments separated by sliding glass doors and containing 5,000 equipment cabinets, each with some 50 servers. As proof of their information security and reliability, Telia has acquired both an ISO 27001 information security certificate and an ISO 22301 business continuity management certificate, one of the first of its kind in Finland. The data centre is also compliant with the VAHTI guidelines of Finland's Government Information Security Management Board.

The new data centre has been likened to a modern, cost-efficient factory with its maximum automation and control over energy use and temperatures. The data centre is also certified according to LEED, CEEDA and ISO 14001. The facility is powered by a dedicated 50-megawatt power plant. At its peak, the facility can take in a maximum of 24 megawatts of energy and release 20 megawatts as thermal energy. The bulk of this energy is used to cool the servers. The data centre uses renewable hydroelectric energy and reuses all thermal waste energy from cooling through the Fortum district heating network. The energy is transferred to neighbouring Espoo, where it supplies approximately ten per cent of the local demand for district heating. The waste heat from these servers provides enough heating for up to 20,000 homes.

Data centre maintenance calls for seamless cooperation and special skills

Maintenance is connected to efficiency, security and responsibility. There is a world of difference between the management and maintenance of a data centre and a regular office or factory building. Data centres are more complex, and they change very quickly compared to other facilities. They also require round-the-clock monitoring all year round, as disruptions, failures and negligence are totally unacceptable. Some have compared the requirements of a data centre to piloting an aeroplane. Data centre maintenance is a process in which the operational and technical functions of the data centre or a server room are monitored. This process involves the management of environmental monitoring, physical security, server operations, data processing services and applications. A correctly planned, implemented and verified maintenance and action plan minimises risks, lowers costs and even conveys competitive advantage to the users of the data centre's services.

"Data centre service providers must work together seamlessly and ensure a trouble-free and secure operational environment, so that customers can focus fully on their own business, trusting the partner to handle their responsibilities," says Heidi Joutsenkunnas, vice president of property management services at Realia Management.

More real-time data is needed – will the cloud or the edge services provide?

The global digital revolution has begun. The transformation from the traditional world of IT into a fully digital one will cement technologies as part of business. This change will create an enormous amount of data, which is needed in real time. The internet of things, along with a host of new applications, will increase the volume of data-driven business. Data centres located too far from the user will not be able to respond in real time – for now, it takes too long for the cloud to process data. To meet the requirement of real-time responsiveness, the data must be analysed closer to where it is created and used, meaning the edge of the cloud. Here "edge" refers to local service centres that can provide the necessary low latency service, i.e. fast response times.

Source: 451 Research, Datacenters and Critical Infrastructure, 2017.

Technology already exists to create the edge. For example, the blockchain technology that has shaken up the banking and financial sector is an edge-type solution. The Helsinki City Transport company (HKL) is a pioneer of the edge: they gather data from metro carriage doors, rails and platforms, analysing it on-site. The results are used to improve the metro system's service level, the reliability of its schedules and customer satisfaction.

The coming ultra-fast 5G networks will help with the requirement of real-time responsiveness, as they can transfer larger batches of data, such as video analytics. Ecosystems for sharing data in real time will form around the data centre business. The digital economy and new applications depend on data centres and the demand for them will continue to grow. The importance of data centre investments is considered to be very high for the service-producing sector and Finland's ability to compete.

Sources:

Finland's Economic Opportunities from Data Centre Investments, Copenhagen Economics, 2017
Total Consumer Power Consumption Forecast, Anders Andrae/Huawei, 2016
Data Centres of the World Will Consume 1/5 of Earth's Power by 2025, João Marques Lima, 2017
Datacenters of the Future, 451 Research Datacenter Monitor, 2017
Essential Elements of Data Center Facility Operations, Robert Woolley and Patrick Donovan, 2017
Helsingin Uutiset on 8 May 2018/J. Hämäläinen
Phone interview with Pasi Sutinen, director of data centre business at Telia
DCD article by Max Smolaks, 11 October 2018
Discover the Edge, Helsinki by Rittal Oy/H. Persson/M. Aho