CIO Folder: Data centres are computing centres

Leslie Faughnan

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14 May 2018 | 0

The advance of all kinds of computing continues. In the beginning, we had shared computers owned by the organisation (mainframes) and programming, input and output was all taken care of by specialist staff. The term Information Technology came much later. In fact, ‘computer’ was the definitive term until personal computers came into existence, followed by applications for individual users (Microsoft Office and other suites) and email. The IT term was coined in 1958 but did not come into common use until decades later.

IT advances
Computers were computers—and still are though they have transmogrified into portable devices (laptops, tablets, smart phones and smart watches). The ‘server’ is today’s equivalent of the mainframe, enabling distributed computing to a potentially limitless population of users. We used to call collections of them ‘server farms’. Now it is an increasing number of servers in a rack and multiple racks in tiers. Miniaturisation is the secret of IT advances, as smarter smart phones demonstrate. The only limitations are the interfaces—screens and keyboards can be too small for human sight or hands while mice (and styli) have to be grip-able. Meanwhile, the CPUs, data storage and PCB are shrinking all the time enabling more power and portability in our devices.

“Forecasts indicate that with Ireland’s growing data centre industry as much as 20% of our island electricity may by the mid-20s be consumed by data centres”

Servers are getting smaller at a rate of knots, but the knotty problem is heat generation. We have not yet mastered the art of cool computing, although cool apps are common. Which is why data centres consume so much energy computing — and cooling the computers. Forecasts indicate that with Ireland’s growing data centre industry as much as 20% of our island electricity may by the mid-20s be consumed by data centres. Our current national plans for increased capacity, renewable or otherwise, do not allow for that increase in demand in that time scale. Brexit may also threaten our energy-sharing agreements with the UK and especially Northern Ireland.

But the overall outlook is positive. We currently have 46 major data centres in Ireland, mainly located around Dublin and almost all FDI. We have the giants: Amazon, Dell and EMC, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft and Verizon (Yahoo). Apple at Athenry is notorious for the individual objectors who have dragged its application all the way through our planning laws for over two years. Now there is doubt about Apple going ahead with the €850 million project, likely to touch €1 billion if it is built, while the comparable investment in Denmark will be in operation early next year.

Dwindling advantage
Our politicians belatedly copped on to the fact that the digital industries in all their current and future manifestations are fast-moving and Ireland’s advantages are not that far ahead of our competition. But our national digital agenda has to embrace data centres. For the investment, of course, but not primarily for employment as our previous industrial development policies mandated. The coming Strategic Infrastructure Act is expected to fast-track such investments and avoid a repetition of the Apple Athenry hiatus.

Today, data centres are rapidly becoming the primary resource for IT across all of its aspects, from applications to services to data hosting. In that context it is reassuring that the plans for a government data centre at Backweston, the multi-agency campus outside Celbridge, are going ahead — after nearly a decade’s delay.

Online web services by businesses from sales to financial to information are being rivalled by SaaS and cloud(s). Government services are online now in all states (while still majority bricks and mortar in undeveloped countries) and the range is growing. Individual user services, from email to apps, from Amazon sales to banking, are increasingly cloud based.

Which is a metaphor and current jargon for digital services based in data centres. The data centre is today’s computer. It has been transformed by the Internet into a data processing factory, a facility that is equipped with the highest levels of communications connectivity, power supply, data storage and computing power. Organisations use data centres because they are so much better equipped than any but giant multinationals, banks and governments could budget for. Local corporate computing will always have a place, not least for security. But shared data centre facilities are the physical basis of our digital future, for organisations as for individuals.

National digital assets
Irish data centres are a national digital asset. They provide a spectrum of state-of-the-art services to our growing digital businesses, both at home and exporting. They serve as secure data repositories and backup resources. Data centres are transforming ICT. If a commercial data centre of any scale is not capable of state-of-the-art performance it is no longer competitive. On the other hand, the bulk of data traffic is ‘normal’. It may be a central computer facility, but it is not generally a supercomputer with top processing performance. It is more like a super-hub, with an expected range of service capabilities at a market leading level — connectivity, data storage and computing. The three are inextricable, but they are generally in that order of importance to the clients and end users.

Private or dedicated data centres are generally smaller in scale but of no less importance to the digital future. Supercomputers, for example, in universities and research centres and the growing fields of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence are generally housed in smaller, more specialised data centres.

But the salient point is that data centres have become the computing centres for our age. Which means that we have to place a renewed emphasis on fibre networks. Data centres are as effective and efficient as their connectivity, which is why most are located along the Dublin outer ring road (M50) where the main fibre ring is located. There are other such resources such as the T50 and Metro Express, criss-crossing the periphery of greater Dublin.

Provincial outlook
Provincially, we have more limited resources. Cork is the digital leader, but we are talking about MANs, which are aimed at the business and retail internet provider market. The physical infrastructure might support data centres, but only where there are at least two separate MANs. In the world of data centres, virtual is the tenants’ offering, not reality. The same is true of electricity resources and sources — one cable, one provider is not sufficient.

Security is a key factor. Physical security has always been a feature of data centres, probably from their original military counterparts. The same applies to the supporting infrastructure: multiple communications, Internet and energy links are the essentials for top level data centres. A growing requirement of clients is cybersecurity and data protection, which nowadays is a multi-layered function beginning at server level.

Why do we need data centres? The short answer is that they draw economic activity of all kinds. They do not employ many permanent staff but they act as an available and attractive resource for start-ups and multinationals and SMEs. Multiple data centres competing in their local market multiply business, especially digital. We have the talent bank for animation, CGI and film production but those arts are impossible today without digital resources. Cloud services are growing in importance but where they depend on nanoseconds proximity is the key.

But above all, the presence in Ireland of so many global brands and their data centres creates a multinational digital culture. Look how Dublin’s young working demographic has changed since the millennium. More of the same, please, but more dispersed. Cities and towns like Galway and Sligo, Waterford and Longford are ripe for digital development, welcoming and by and large with proportionally more housing and land than the Dublin region. Athenry remains our big regret. What an example that might yet be.

 

 

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