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Assessing the aftermath of Apple’s abortive effort to build its Irish datacentre

The site Apple had earmarked as a prime location for one of its first non-US datacentres is up for sale, but what will become of the site and the community that supported the tech giant through its four-year battle to get the server farm built?

Apple confirmed in May 2018 that its ambition to build a 24,500m2 datacentre in Athenry, County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, were being abandoned, after four years of trying to win approval for its plans through both the Irish planning and court systems.

The decision was considered by some to be a long time coming, given that the consumer technology giant was no nearer to getting started on the €850m project at that point than it was when it first announced the scheme in February 2015.

In the years leading up to its cancellation, the project had a hugely divisive impact on the residents of Athenry, with many hailing the positive economic impact of a firm like Apple moving into a town that had, they claimed, been “starved of inward investment” for a long time.

Although the datacentre itself might have required relatively few people to staff it once completed, the construction phase would have created hundreds of jobs, and potentially generated follow-on business in the town as all these workers would need somewhere to eat and sleep, its supporters claimed. 

But on the other side, objectors took umbrage about the suitability of the site chosen by Apple for the datacentre, from an environmental, power supply and accessibility perspective.

For instance, the project’s detractors asked, how did Apple’s desire to build a datacentre in the middle of woodland, known as Derrydonnell Forest, square with its environmental friendly pledge to ensure the site would be powered solely by renewable energy?

Some of the objections were raised more formally than others, although it was those raised by two individuals in particular – Allan Daly and Sinead Fitzpatrick – that led to years of legal wrangling in the Irish courts, and eventually led to Apple abandoning the project.

The pair had contested the decision by Irish planning chiefs to grant Apple permission to build the datacentre in the first place in the form of a judicial review, and voiced concerns about the project’s environmental impact on the local area, particularly from a carbon emissions perspective.

A degree of hope still alive

But although the persistence of the objectors in fighting their corner outlasted Apple’s patience in making its Irish datacentre plans a reality, the conclusion to the legal aspects of the dispute in April 2019 has kept a degree of hope alive in Athenry that the tech giant might one day revisit the project.

This was on the back of the Irish Supreme Court dismissing the appeal by Daly and Fitzpatrick against the decision to grant planning permission to Apple for the project, while denying the pair a referral of their case to the European Court of Justice.

Apple may have officially aborted its datacentre plans a year earlier, but it remains the registered owner, prompting speculation in parts of the local community that the conclusion of the legal action might give Apple cause to consider rekindling its interest in the project.

That was until a report in The Times earlier this month (October 2019) confirmed that Apple had finally put the Derrydonnell site up for sale, with its agents marketing it as a “ready-to-go datacentre development” called “Data Hub West”.

At the time of writing, details about the site’s asking price are unknown, but Computer Weekly understands that whoever ends up buying it will acquire the planning permission rights that Apple acquired after a hard-fought legal battle in the courts.

Although the project may have struggled to reach fruition under Apple’s ownership, given the growing demand for datacentre capacity within Ireland as a whole, the general consensus among datacentre market watchers is that the site could sell reasonably quickly. 

After the Supreme Court ruling, Ciarán Cannon, Irish state minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, spoke of his conviction that the site “will be developed sooner rather than later”, suggesting that Apple’s prior interest could act as a seal of approval for other tech firms.

“This is a site owned by Apple, with all the necessary infrastructure in place and with full planning permission. Sites like this are very rare internationally,” Cannon is quoted as saying back in April 2019.

However, Computer Weekly understands that the terms of the sale mean any new buyer will acquire permission to build only the first phase of the datacentre campus that Apple had planned for the site.

A source with knowledge of the planning matters of the case, who spoke to Computer Weekly under condition of anonymity, added: “Any deviation from that [first-phase plan] would require a fresh planning application and perhaps another environmental impact assessment. In that regard, the existing planning is somewhat Apple-specific, and there are very few companies worldwide that could fulfil those criteria.”

Ireland draws in the hyperscalers

Even so, it is impossible to deny that there is currently a lot of pent-up demand for datacentre capacity within Ireland, thanks in no small part to the country’s temperate climate and congenial tax regime.

There is also likely be a “birds of a feather flock together” element to the country’s appeal for operators, given that it is now an established haven for several major players in the hyperscale datacentre community.

“When Apple announced its intention to build a datacentre campus in Athenry, Ireland had circa 300MW of connected datacentres. Since that date, another 344MW of datacentres have been approved for planning and connected,” said Gary Connolly, founder and president of Host In Ireland, an organisation that champions the country as a good place for cloud and internet firms to set up shop.

“Ireland is in the unique position that the other four leading hyperscale providers – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft – already have significant substance and expansion plans announced in other parts of Ireland.”

The Athenry site has only been on the market for a short time, and so far there has been no indication – according to Connolly – about who or how many parties might be interested in acquiring it.

“It is possible that one of them [the existing hyperscalers] or an Asia-Pacific powerhouse like Tencent, Baidu or Alibaba may look at Athenry, but we have not heard of any direct interest to date,” he said. 

And while it is still early days, there is a degree of scepticism in the local area that Apple’s efforts to sell the site to another datacentre operator will succeed, particularly among those who wholeheartedly threw their weight behind the tech giant’s plans.

They include Paul Keane, founder of the 4,700-strong Athenry for Apple supporters group, who told Computer Weekly of the sadness being keenly felt in the local community about Apple’s decision to sell up.

“It’s a black scar on anyone who was interested in the future of the locality, our community and in rural Ireland as a place to do hyperscale enterprise,” he said.

“The feeling of loss can be understood by what potential was lost and what can be recovered. The potential was the rise of the locality as a modern place to do business. From the traditional, to the one-man band, up to an Apple datacentre. A spectrum with limitless potential. Now it’s gone.”

Read more about Apple’s Irish datacentre development saga

Keane thinks there is a “very low chance” of someone acquiring the site with the intention of following through on Apple’s designs for it, and that it is more likely it will eventually be sold on for another purpose.

“There is a chance that someone will come and apply for their own design [for the site],” he said. “This includes the risk of someone objecting with a novel argument.” That could lead to a repeat of the problems faced by Apple, said Keane.

That said, the Apple case is credited with ushering in a revamp of Ireland’s planning laws, with the express intention of preventing other datacentre operators’ developments encountering similar logjams caused by objector complaints.

“All things being equal, I don’t think the courts or even An Bord Pleanála [the independent Irish planning board] would entertain the objections that were put against the Apple project,” said Keane.

“A caveat would be how many global organisations – as I don’t know any local ones – require a 500-plus-acre semi-forested site for their datacentre plans?”

Although the Apple objectors in Athenry ultimately lost their appeal against the planning authority’s decision to approve the firm’s datacentre plans, there is – as alluded to by Keane – a concern that another party might face similar opposition should it take over the site.

A representative for the objectors declined Computer Weekly’s invitation to comment, which is perhaps unsurprising given how much animosity remains towards them in the local area among supporters of the datacentre plan.

It is worth mentioning, however, that while the legal issues (and ensuing delays) that blighted Apple’s attempts to build its datacentre were a likely factor in its decision to pull the plug on the project, it also reversed plans to build a second server farm in Denmark earlier this year.

In a statement to Computer Weekly at the time, Apple said it had decided instead to focus its efforts on expanding the capacity of another datacentre it had under development in Denmark, rather than press ahead with building a separate site.

Coinciding with this news were claims that Apple had also apparently begun to ramp up its use of public cloud services, with a report in April 2019 claiming that the company was spending upwards of $30m a month with Amazon Web Services (AWS).

So, while it is easy to lay the blame at the door of the objectors for whatever happens next in Athenry, it seems a change in Apple’s datacentre investment strategy has also played its part.

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