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Combining edge datacentres with commercial property builds could boost sustainability

Professor Ian Bitterlin makes the case for combining edge datacentres with commercial property builds for heat re-use purposes

Building smaller, edge datacentres into commercial buildings could give the industry a more sustainable means to respond to the exponential growth in demand for data-processing capacity.

Such a strategy would provide smart city developers with low-latency connections to datacentre processing capacity, while allowing the resultant heat to be used elsewhere on-site.

The idea was mooted by Professor Ian Bitterlin of the University of Leeds during a session at the Datacentre Summit South event in London about how society’s ravenous consumption of data is affecting energy use and supply levels.

With exponential amounts of data being consumed by the users of internet services such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, the amount of energy being eaten up by datacentres is rising accordingly, he said.

This is being accelerated by the push by governments around the globe towards providing citizens with access to faster and more consistent internet connections, which are bringing more people online all the time.

“You have business departments wanting to roll out broadband, and the environmental departments wanting to drive efficiency,” said Bitterlin.  

“Excuse me, but there is a gulf in the middle which they don’t appear to have spotted, which is: if you give people access to faster broadband, they will use it.”

Meanwhile, the number of internet-connected devices coming into use is rising all the time, along with the number of towns and cities looking to adopt smart technologies, fuelling further demand for datacentre capacity.

On the back of this, interest is growing in the use of “edge datacentres”, which can be used specifically to process information generated by internet of things (IoT) deployments or to serve up popular pieces of content to web users from nearby locations.

Read more about datacentre efficiency

These sites are favoured because they can be built in closer proximity to the data source or consumer, resulting in lower latency.

Therefore, said Bitterlin, this trend could give the datacentre sector an opportunity to rethink how and where it chooses to build out capacity, and pave the way for it to develop more efficient ways of working.

In particular, as the datacentre currently accounts for 2-3% of the energy consumed from the National Grid, a 15% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is recorded.

“Look at any hotel in London – it could almost draw 100-200kW of continuous heat just to heat its hot water system,” said Bitterlin.

Datacentre in the basement

“What about if every hotel had a 200-300kW datacentre in the basement? Instead of huge out-of-town facilities getting bigger and bigger and bigger, what about smaller, liquid-cooled datacentres that are on the edge?

“Most commercial facilities can absorb a certain amount of heat, so this idea of commercial buildings becoming distributed datacentres isn’t as crazy as it sounds.”

Industry experts often suggest re-use schemes as a means of improving datacentre efficiency, the idea being that a facility’s waste heat could be used to warm nearby houses or offices.

However, the success of such initiatives largely depends on the datacentre’s proximity to the intended recipient, because the heat is often low-grade and cannot travel far, said Bitterlin.

And that is why it makes sense to build datacentres within the walls of commercial buildings, he said.

Datacentres in danger

How at-risk the datacentre sector is from power outages, should a shortfall in supply occur, is a matter increasingly being discussed at IT events.  

Colocation provider Verne Global recently cautioned CIOs and the datacentre sector against taking the UK’s energy supply for granted. This followed an Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) report that warned of an impending electricity supply crisis, with demand for power set to outstrip supply by up to 55%.

Meanwhile, in a separate session at Datacentre Summit South, Chris Cutler, general manager at uninterruptible power supply (UPS) supplier Riello UK, highlighted the growing risk of “controlled disconnects” by the National Grid.

Supplies safeguarded

The National Grid is at liberty to take such action when the UK’s available electricity capacity reaches critical levels, resulting in supplies being safeguarded to high-priority users, such as the emergency services.

However, Bitterlin played down the risk of brownouts and blackouts, pointing out that similar concerns have been expressed regularly over the past 15 years without coming true, and a lot of it amounts to scaremongering.

“People have said that for 15 years and it’s never been turned off yet,” he said. “Domestic consumption has dropped by 20% in the last five years, and industrial consumption has fallen through the floor because we don’t make anything here any more. It’s only the services sector that does.”

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