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Coronavirus: How Covid-19 has elevated the status of the datacentre industry

The pandemic has served to highlight just how dependent the world is on the datacentre community – and governments, policy-makers and investors are taking note

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How Covid-19 elevated the datacentre

The cloak of invisibility under which the datacentre industry operates suits enterprises and colocation providers from a security and operational scrutiny perspective, but it also has its drawbacks.

The industry’s preference for secrecy is often cited as a reason why the key role it plays in keeping the world’s increasingly digital economy ticking over sometimes seems to pass governments by, and makes it difficult for industry players to get their voices heard on policy issues that may impact them directly and negatively.

For these reasons, a concerted effort has been made in recent years to raise the profile of the industry by lobbyists and trade associations across Europe, while balancing the need for operators to retain a level of secrecy with regard to where their facilities are and whose data sits inside them.

And there have been some notable signs of progress on this front across the continent, with datacentres in some countries – including Denmark, Germany, France, Norway and the UK – now classified as critical national infrastructure (CNI), depending on their size and function.  

As described by tech trade body TechUK, the reasons why a datacentre becomes classified as CNI varies from country to country, with Germany, for example, giving that designation to any facility in excess of 5MW in size, whereas all datacentres in Finland are categorised as CNI by default, and have been since the Cold War.  

“In most cases, communications infrastructure is designated critical and datacentres therefore sit in a grey area depending on whether they are seen to underpin comms,” said TechUK in a policy document in April 2020. “Awareness of datacentre function within policy-makers varies significantly by nation state.

“In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, awareness is good; elsewhere, less so. Most European countries designate some datacentres as critical national infrastructure depending on their individual function. In some cases, the operator must request CNI status; in others, such as the UK, CNI status is decided by the Cabinet Office, and those few datacentres so designated will be well aware.”

Finland and Germany are notable as being the only two European countries on the TechUK list to classify datacentres as CNI by default, but in the wake of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, could that change?

Emma Fryer, associate director of datacentres at TechUK, tells Computer Weekly that while the introduction of the CNI designation for datacentres over 5MW in size was initially a painful process for operators in Germany, those with qualifying sites in that country have felt the benefit during the pandemic.

“A couple of operators with sites in Germany have said that during Covid-19, things were much easier for them because they knew that if they needed supplies, they were going to come, and if they needed work to be done on their sites, there would be no issues with access,” says Fryer.

One such operator is carrier-neutral datacentre and colocation provider CyrusOne, which operates 45 datacentres across Asia, North and South America and Europe, including three in Frankfurt.

“Datacentres are going to go up the agenda in terms of their recognition as business-critical infrastructure”
Matt Pullen, CyrusOne

Matt Pullen, the firm’s executive vice-president and managing director for Europe, echoed Fryer’s take on what a positive difference having CNI status in Germany has had on its ability to keep its sites up and running during the pandemic.

“We are fortunate in that we already had critical infrastructure designation for datacentres in that country, which has been helpful as it means our workers and suppliers have had special dispensation,” he says.

It has also ensured there has been “very little slippage” in CyrusOne’s deployment schedule for new capacity within its datacentres, which is just as well, given that the company is, like many other colocation providers, seeing demand for colocation capacity soar during Covid-19.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the colocation market across Europe was enjoying a well-documented boom, fuelled by the seemingly insatiable demand from hyperscale cloud and internet firms for datacentre capacity.  

“Up until the beginning of 2019, hyperscale deployments were only at about 120MW in London,” says Pullen. “At the end of March, we were up to 207MW of deployment in London. So in the last 15 months, we’ve seen nearly a doubling in deployments.  

“What we’re seeing is increased demand, but we’re also seeing a lot of the hyperscalers who are optioning and reserving capacity in the expectation that they will need to draw on that capacity within a year or 18 months.”

Covid-19 driving demand for colocation

It is difficult to determine whether such buying behaviour is being fuelled by Covid-19 or would have happened anyway, given the long-term and rapid growth trajectory of the market, says Pullen.

“It probably is a combination of increasing demand,” he says. “But the hyperscalers are probably fearful about the ability for capacity to be delivered and will need clarity around forthcoming inventory, so they are taking steps now to ensure they have enough [of both] to meet future demand.”

Either way, Pullen feels that one of the after-effects of the coronavirus could be that more datacentres across the globe are classified CNI as a matter of course, as the pandemic has served to highlight just how business-critical their infrastructure is.

“Undoubtedly, datacentres are going to go up the agenda in terms of their recognition as business-critical infrastructure,” he says. “Governments are reaching out to us to help us get that designation, for example.”

Elevation in the status of UK datacentres

On that point, there has been marked elevation in the status of datacentres within the UK specifically, since the onset of the pandemic. This started with the news in March 2020 that datacentre infrastructure staff had been given key worker status, thanks in no small part to lobbying by TechUK.

Although the primary focus of this list was to ensure key workers could continue to access childcare despite the widespread closure of educational facilities across the UK at this time, the list is also an important resource for identifying people who must be permitted to travel during lockdown.

Around the same time, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) set up the Data Infrastructure Resilience Team to provide the datacentre industry with government-level representation during the pandemic.

The team, which is expected to remain in place for at least 12 months, is responsible for ensuring that the needs and wants of the datacentre industry are factored in when decisions are made by the government about lockdown exemptions, and other related policies.

TechUK’s Fryer says the creation of this team marks a “seismic change” given that the industry has not, until this point, benefited from the attentions of a single sponsoring department within government.

Read more about Covid-19 and datacentres

Instead, it has previously had to make do with trying to engage different departments on a policy-by-policy basis, and deal with government advisers who are not always as clued up as they should be on the size of the industry or the role in plays in keeping the UK online.

“We’ve had these conversations with different bits of government [in the past], and when we go in, they don’t understand that the UK has a world-leading datacentre market,” says Fryer. “In that sense, this is a major change.”

And it is a change made all the more remarkable by how quickly it has occurred, she adds. “You think of government as being fairly slow-moving, so to see them moving [on this] with the speed and decisiveness they have has been massively helpful – and kicked off a different kind of dialogue with government about datacentres.”

This is hardly surprising, given how critical datacentres have proved themselves to be during the Covid-19 crisis, as consumers lean on cloud-based streaming, gaming and social media services to alleviate the lockdown boredom, and businesses turn to cloud to enable remote working.

On this point, Microsoft went on record in June 2020 to discuss how it is responding at a datacentre level to the unprecedented demand it is seeing for both business and consumer-grade cloud services supplied from its datacentres across the world since the pandemic started.

Raising the profile

There is no denying that Covid-19 has prompted a significant elevation in status for datacentres in the eyes of the UK government, says Fryer, which should go some way to educating the wider public about the important role these server farms play in society. 

“There has always been this perception that datacentres are these big sheds that use loads of power and they don’t employ anybody, and all they do is allow you to upload pictures of yourself teaching your dog to tap dance,” she says.

“And now suddenly people are realising datacentres are really massively important things. Datacentres run the economy, and can you imagine how catastrophic Covid-19 would have been to business operations if we hadn’t had the internet and datacentres? I do think that message has hit home now.”

However, what the industry must prepare itself for is the fact that this elevation in status is likely to result in its actions and behaviour being scrutinised more than ever before, says Fryer, particularly when it comes to matters of resiliency, given how heavily reliant businesses and consumers are on their ability to function during all aspects of their daily lives.

The sector’s track record on sustainability and energy use is already kept under close watch, she says, but it might also lead to the government taking a keener interest in how the UK’s high energy costs negatively affect the sector.

“This may lead to a much more joined-up conversation between the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS] and DCMS about the impact of high energy costs, the tradability of data and the potential for carbon leakage, which would be welcomed,” she says.

“We are constantly fighting the threat of carbon leakage because we want to make sure the UK continues to be a world-leading datacentre market”
Emma Fryer, TechUK

Carbon leakage is an issue the government needs to take action on, given its potential to harm the UK’s standing as a leading European datacentre hub, because it is the phrase used to describe situations in which a company relocates overseas to set up shop in countries where carbon taxation is not so rigorous.

“We are constantly fighting the threat of carbon leakage because we want to make sure the UK continues to be a world-leading datacentre market,” says Fryer.

On that point, Steve Wallage, managing director of datacentre-focused consultancy firm Danseb Consulting, says investor interest in the UK datacentre market is increasing because of the pandemic.

“We see a lot of investors are interested in the datacentre sector, but it’s been somewhat piecemeal up to now, but the pandemic has really accelerated the idea of datacentres as an asset class,” he tells Computer Weekly.

This is a trend that has been playing out for a while, with colocation facilities increasingly viewed as dependable and stable investment prospects, particularly as demand for datacentre capacity from the hyperscalers and enterprises shows little sign of slowing down any time soon.

And with the industry’s profile continuing to rise, in line with government support and investor interest, there is potential for progress to be made in plugging its well-documented skills gaps, says Wallage.

“It is much more understood as a sector now,” he says. “I remember Googling ‘datacentre jobs’ a while back and the first thing that comes up again and again is how noisy and horrible places they are to work, which isn’t exactly great. 

“Linked to the whole idea of datacentres being viewed as [far more] important is whether that’s going to help create interest in it as a sector to work and, if it does, that would be a very positive thing.”

Read more on Datacentre performance troubleshooting, monitoring and optimisation

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