Capacity myopia.

Fredrik Jansson shares his thoughts on the limited discussion on sustainability at Kickstart Europe.

When Stijn Grove opened last month’s Kickstart Europe conference he listed sustainability as one of the key challenges facing the 1,000 European digital infrastructure leaders in the room. The accompanying Outlook 2020 report also rightly calls it out as a key priority for the digital infrastructure industry. As Peter Vermeulen, Analyst at Pb7 says in the Report. “This means that [the industry] will need to continuously invest in energy efficiency and green power – if they haven’t done so already.”

But despite this clear focus and the fact that sustainability dominates debate in society, politics and the media, I was shocked at the limited discussion it garnered at the event.

In the year when I predict the climate crisis movement will hit digital infrastructure with full force, this absence of debate is concerning. Our industry will suddenly find itself under intense scrutiny from politicians and customers. Consumers, citizens and society as a whole will want action as data centers move towards consuming 20% of the world’s power and responsible for CO2 emissions similar to those of the shipping and aviation industries, or all the cars on the planet!

Capacity myopia
Instead, the debate at Kickstart Europe was dominated by other megatrend impacting our business: digitisation. Today digitisation means more data, more complexity and more compute resource needed to use and extract value from it. CBRE shared a stunning statistic – by 2025, humans in the developed world will have at least one ‘interaction’ with a data center every 18 seconds of their lifetime.

Owning and operating those data centers is increasingly the domain of specialists. In its keynote, CBRE also predicted a shift from 72% of enterprises having an on-premise data center today, to just 10% in the next few years. René Bũst, presenting Gartner’s 2019 CIO survey, revealed that 35% will spend less on their own data centers and infrastructure and 33% will spend more on cloud services. Most will transition to public clouds managed by hyperscale providers who will in turn look to data center specialists to provide them with the facilities to house their servers.

So, the issue of balancing massive demand for capacity with delivering sustainability lies squarely in the hands of the digital infrastructure providers. So why so little debate on the topic?

I suspect two factors lie behind this code of silence. First, in the race to digitise everything, data center capacity is key. The demand for capacity is so great, especially in the FLAP-D markets that sustainability considerations are edged out. But this narrow focus must change. Not only have hyperscalers like Microsoft and Google made commitments to zero or even net negative carbon emissions, but consumers are also beginning to demand ‘green’ data services. Our own research showed that nearly 70 per cent of consumers believe that it is important for digital services to have as little climate impact as possible.

The pressure for transparency and positive action on climate change will force all data center operators to make more sustainable choices.

The second reason for not discussing it is that they don’t have a solution. The dominant FLAP-D markets are characterised by connection to dirty power generation. Less than 40% of energy in these markets comes from renewables. In Frankfurt, which is predicted to be the first European market to sign 100mw of deals in a year, over 40% of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels!

Cool heads
As the demand for capacity, and the high-performance computing solutions behind AI, VR, autonomous driving and other emerging digital applications, increase, organisations will increasingly need to question exactly where data and compute resources need to be. Some data, whether for regulatory or latency reasons, will need to be kept locally. But the vast majority can be located where the financial and environmental costs can be substantially mitigated.

Increasingly, the hot ‘brains’ of the digital infrastructure, the high-performance computers supporting AI, can and should be located in cool climates with abundant, low-cost, renewable power sources.

The one place the topic of sustainability was discussed at Kickstart Europe was the panel looking at investment in the Nordics. As the leader in the region DigiPlex is already seeing the increasing focus put on sustainability by customers from hyperscalers to enterprises. In our annual survey of CEOs, CFOs and CIOs, sustainability leapt from bottom of the list of concerns when considering a data center partner in 2016, to 4th most important last year.

We are seeing more and more businesses, not just hyperscalers, but those enterprises looking to benefit from digitalisation generally, and AI in particular, planning ‘compute hubs’ in the Nordic region. Sustainability is a key driver as customer pressure and political scrutiny combine to force better solutions. These hubs will be a triple win for those that move to them. They can be transparent with their customers and offer digital services with low environmental costs; they will also save money by using less power overall, and consuming some of the lowest cost electricity available anywhere; and they will he helping to deliver the advantages of digitisation whilst also saving the planet.

With sustainability remaining at the top of the agenda (my fellow Swede Greta Tunberg once again stole the show at Davos last week) we cannot take our eyes off the ball. Decisions taken now will determine the sustainability of digital services for 10 or 20 years. If you decide where to locate your data based solely on availability of capacity irrespective of its carbon footprint, then you may well be condemning your business to unwelcome and damaging scrutiny. Sustainability is too important an issue to leave off the agenda. Let’s hope that next year’s Kickstart gives it the attention it needs.

Article written by Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer, Fredrik Jansson