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The unprecedented energy price and supply crisis blighting Europe, in the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, has cast a long shadow on the UK datacentre market in 2022.
From operators being warned to ready themselves for the prospect of winter power cuts to soaring energy costs forcing some firms out of business, it is fair to say the energy-hungry datacentre sector has not had the easiest ride this year.
Against that backdrop, operators continue to come under pressure to embrace sustainable practices and reduce the environmental impact of their facilities, with the extreme heat and drought experienced in many parts of the world this year highlighting why the sector must do more to tackle climate change.
Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 datacentre stories of 2022.
The year saw the long-running saga of Apple’s abortive attempt to build a datacentre in Athenry, Ireland, finally draw to a close after years of planning permission issues and court actions.
In July 2022, the Irish High Court quashed a five-year planning permission extension Apple had secured for the site in August 2021 after the decision to grant it was challenged via a judicial review.
The challenge was raised by Allan Daly, a long-standing objector to Apple’s plans to build a datacentre in the town, and the fact it succeeded has left a question mark over the consumer electronic giant’s plans to try to sell the site on with datacentre development potential.
This is because, with no active planning permission in place for a datacentre campus, the site has to be listed as open space.
This year has also seen a sharpening in focus once again around how datacentres might be contributing to the climate crisis and – in turn – the steps operators are taking to limit the environmental impact of their facilities.
To this point, Microsoft found the water consumption habits of one of its major European datacentre campuses in the Netherlands come under close scrutiny amid claims it was consuming high volumes of water as temperatures across the continent hit record highs during the summer heatwave.
However, as documented by Computer Weekly, the claims turned out to be unfounded.
The summer heatwave also proved to be a source of technical trouble for Google and Oracle’s UK datacentre regions, with the record-breaking temperatures in July 2022 causing both to experience cooling system issues and outages.
The unseasonably high temperatures the UK experienced in July 2022 have been linked to climate change, which is something datacentre resiliency think-tank the Uptime Institute has been warning datacentre operators to factor into their disaster planning procedures for years.
Google and Oracle were not the only organisations to find their infrastructure faltering in the face of the soaring summer 2022 temperatures, as Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust confirmed the heat caused “significant disruption” to various IT systems it relies on to deliver services to its patients.
The situation led to appointments being cancelled and made it difficult for patients to contact the trust, which is renowned for being one of the largest the NHS operates, and access some of its services.
The major colocation datacentre hub of Dublin was rocked by a warning in May 2022 that suggested a number of its facilities could be affected by climate change-related flooding by the year 2100.
According to data shared by climate technology company Cervest, adopting a “business as usual” approach to tackling the climate crisis means large swathes of the city could be at risk of up to 1.7m of flooding, which could have dire consequences for its datacentres and power plants.
Planning issues also raised their head elsewhere this year, when national newspaper reports began painting the datacentre industry as a power-hungry entity that is sucking the West London electricity grid dry and exacerbating the capital’s housing crisis.
These claims were based on the contents of a briefing note, distributed to property developers and trade associations in July by the Greater London Authority, that stated that the “rapid influx” of datacentres along the M4 corridor had left the electricity transmission and distribution networks in the London boroughs of Ealing, Hillingdon and Hounslow suffering capacity issues.
As a result, developers of major housing, commercial and industrial developments said they were told this meant they would face a wait of “several years” to have their builds hooked up to the grid, prompting fears that this could lead to a ban on new homes.
As reported by Computer Weekly at the time, it appears these concerns were not quite as bad as they first appeared.
Energy supply issues also came to the fore in November 2022 when details began to emerge about the preparatory steps operators were taking to keep their datacentres up and running if the National Grid’s warnings of planned power cuts this winter became a reality.
While the National Grid maintains that planned power cuts will only be needed in a worst-case scenario, if gas supplies fall to critically low levels and renewable power generation fails to match demand, that has not stopped the datacentre sector from mobilising.
Rising energy costs have also taken their toll on the datacentre sector in 2022, with at least one colocation operator being forced into administration. The firm in question is the UK arm of US-based colocation provider Sungard AS, whose demise was blamed on spiralling energy costs and the dampening in demand for its services during the pandemic.
Its financial reports for 2018 and 2019 both make reference to the fact that the firm has been grappling with a decline in demand for its services for some time.
“This [downturn in client spend] has resulted in certain datacentre and workplace facilities becoming unprofitable, with fixed lease and energy costs no longer being offset by customer revenue,” said the company’s 2020 accounts.
Despite the best efforts of datacentre operators the world over to reduce the amount of downtime their facilities suffer, the severity and financial impact of server farm outages continue to spiral, revealed Uptime Institute data in June 2022.
The organisation’s fourth annual downtime analysis survey revealed outage rates were increasing despite “strong investment” from operators in technologies designed to prevent downtime events.
“The overall impact and cost of outages is not shrinking – as might have been hoped – but is, in fact, growing,” Uptime’s 23-page annual outage analysis stated. “Investment in cloud-based and distributed resiliency may have helped reduce the impact of site-level failures, but it has also introduced error-prone complexity. Better management and staff training would help to reduce these failures.”
With public sector organisations under continued pressure to cut costs, the news that the Cabinet Office’s joint venture with Ark Data Centres had been enlisted to host the government’s non-cloud workloads for another seven years should perhaps come as no surprise.
What did raise eyebrows about this procurement was the fact that no other firms were ever in the running for the £250m contract secured by Crown Hosting Data Centres, which government procurement chiefs put down to the fact the joint venture was the “only organisation in the UK capable and willing to provide this”.