Visions 2020 and beyond

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Transformation, security, workplace development and sustainability. ICT in 2020 faces a wide range of competing demands

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18 February 2020 | 0

In this first year of the new decade, one might have thought that the Brexit deadline passing and a general election here, might have done something to address the uncertainty in the near future.

As mandarins on either side of the English Channel taking differing views on what has already been set out, uncertainty looks like the outlook for the foreseeable future.

At home, the shape of the 33rd Dáil is known, but even an outline of the next government remains stubbornly elusive.

Amid this, the strong trends in the world of ICT remain the same. Digital transformation remains high on all agendas, with security the ever present underlier for all.

The changing nature of the workforce and ensuring inclusive, welcoming and productive workspaces and practices is also a growing theme, with everything taking place to the backdrop of sustainability imperative.

With so many questions to answer, TechCentral.ie presents these viewpoints, to inform and guide IT decision makers in their quest for business decision support.

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Paul Hearns, head of content, TechPro and TechCentral

Power struggle

The issue of how we power our future, locally and globally, is one of competing demands, and pressing time

At time of writing, a sobering fact had just been confirmed. 2019 was the second hottest year recorded globally, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. Furthermore, it has been taken as confirmation that the planet is steadily getting warmer, having already warmed by as much as 1 degree Celsius when compared with in the mid-twentieth century, just seventy years ago. There is now little doubt that greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), are causing this warming trend to accelerate.

Nuclear power could fill a critical future energy gap in transitioning to carbon neutral generation.

“The fact is that the planet is warming, and every year, we add one extra data point to this graph,” said Gavin Schmidt, director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Ranking years based on average temperatures might grab headlines, Schmidt said, but the main thing here is not really the ranking, rather the consistency of the long-term trends that we are seeing.

Schmidt sees the trend continuing into the 2020s.

“I would say, notwithstanding some sort of major, major geophysical event, it would be almost certain that the coming decade will be warmer than the previous,” said Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring, National Centers for Environmental Information, NOAA.

These stark facts, interpretations and projections mean one thing: how we generate and consume energy in the future must change if we are to in any way curb the warming effect.

“Data centres, and the ICT companies behind them, have always expressed a preference for renewable power, but if growth in the sector follows recent trends, it is likely that demand for power will continue to meet or outstrip our ability to generate power from renewable sources.”

This situation stands in stark contrast to projected demand.

According to the non-profit research institution Resources for the Future (RFF) in its Global Energy Outlook (GEO) Report published in July 2019, between 1990 and 2015 global energy consumption rose by 190 quadrillion British Thermal Units (Btu) (qBtu) to 550 qBtu. Further forecasts suggest the coming next 2 decades will see growth of just 30 to 80 qBtu, and perhaps even a decline by 4 qBtu in Ambitious Climate Scenarios (ACS).

Irrespective of the growth in demand, 550-600 Btu is still a massive amount of energy to generate, especially if it is to come from cleaner sources. Under Ambitious Climate scenarios, says REF, renewables will become the largest source of global primary energy, overtaking petroleum to reach as high as 31% in 2040.

Here at home, Ireland is actually on, or ahead, of target on renewables.

According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), wind generation accounted for 28.1% (normalised) of all electricity generated, in 2018, and constitutes the second largest source of electricity generation after natural gas. Renewable electricity generation accounted for 33.2% (normalised) of gross electricity consumption. The use of renewables in electricity generation in 2018 reduced CO2 emissions by 4 Mt and avoided €430 million in fossil fuel imports.

The carbon intensity of electricity fell from 437 gCO2/kWh in 2017 to 375 gCO2/kWh. This was mainly due to the reduction in coal use and increased wind generation, said SEAI. Without renewable energy the carbon intensity of electricity generation would have been over 500 gCO2/kWh.

The authority said that the Government is pushing for 70% of electricity to be renewable-driven by 2030, in a bid to bring down emissions from the energy sector.

However, Ireland has a problem. We not only need to invest in sustainable energy generation capacity, we need to phase out all fossil fuel generation and meet demand. And that demand is coming from our own sector – information and communications technology (ICT).

According to Eirgrid, by 2027, the electricity demand in Ireland from data centres alone will represent 31% of total demand. As of late 2019, Irish data centres total 48 operational across the country, accounting for 540MW of grid-connected power capacity. The total demand estimate for 2019 is 31 TWh.

Data centres, and the ICT companies behind them, have always expressed a preference for renewable power, but if growth in the sector follows recent trends, it is likely that demand for power will continue to meet or outstrip our ability to generate power from renewable sources.

Significant investment and change of focus are needed.

While there have already been encouraging moves in this direction, with Energia’s announcement in July of last year that it would invest €3 billion in renewables over the next five years, there have been estimates from the Irish Academy of Engineers that as much as €9 billion will be required to meet future demand.

However, even if the ambitious target of 70% renewables in the energy mix by 2030, renewables here, will always be dominated by wind power. This is a volatile, inconsistent source that will always need to be supplemented by more conventional power generation, that is currently provided by fossil fuels. So, where will future, clean, CO2 power generation come from?

In the context of fusion power generation still being that ever elusive 10 years away, the world may well, in the next 10 years, seriously consider nuclear fission power again.

This would not be the nuclear power of the past, which, it must be said, was merely a front in many cases for producing weapon’s grade materials. The new generation of nuclear power is expected to produce between a half and one thousandth of the by products of previous systems. Not only that, the main material behind such plants is three times more abundant than uranium, more easily mined, less radioactive in its natural state and requires far less specialised handling.

Thorium is a shiny metal in its most natural state and, on its own, is not suitable for fission power generation. According to the World Nuclear Association (WEA), “Thorium (Th-232) is not itself fissile and so is not directly usable in a thermal neutron reactor. However, it is ‘fertile’ and, upon absorbing a neutron, will transmute to uranium-233 (U-233), which is an excellent fissile fuel material.”

“The thorium fuel cycle,” says WEA, “offers enormous energy security benefits in the long-term – due to its potential for being a self-sustaining fuel without the need for fast neutron reactors. It is therefore an important and potentially viable technology that seems able to contribute to building credible, long-term nuclear energy scenarios.”

Not only that, it is much harder to make weapon’s grade materials from the thorium fuel cycle. Recyclability is also much higher than with older fission processes, leading to less waste, which is of a less hazardous nature and requires less intensive storage measures.

Currently, Canada, China, India, Israel, Germany, Norway and the United States have plans to or are experimenting with the principles behind various designs of Thorium cycle reactors.

Before fusion technologies are ready to bear fruit, Thorium cycle systems could well provide a new generation of safer, cleaner, cheaper energy to be the basis to which renewables such as wind, solar and wave supplement.

What is clear is that Ireland must take a lead in ensuring not just that renewables form the majority of our generative capacity in the future, but that as we accommodate demand from the ICT sector, and mostly data centres, that we replace current fossil fuel capacity with clean alternatives.

With the climate outlook as dire as it is, Ireland must seriously look at the emerging technologies, especially nuclear in the form of Thorium cycle systems, as a potentially clean, safe and sustainable source of energy. Ireland could not possibly go it alone on such a venture, but it could participate in the research groups and energy bodies that are already investigating such technologies for the future. Ireland could also work within Europe to ensure there is a supportive legislative framework to allow the entire EU economy to transition to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources, such as next generation nuclear.

Time is limited to make these changes but working with European partners could ensure that when they are ready for practical application, and Ireland can take full advantage.

Nuclear energy here has always been seen in the context of the shadow of Windscale/Sellafield, and the appalling safety record of those installations. In more recent times, Chernobyl and Fukushima have provided even more chilling experiences of what can go wrong. However, Thorium cycle nuclear plants are much easier to protect against the prospect of meltdown, as runaway reactions can be easily prevented, with complete shutdown of the reactions as part of the overall design. When this is taken in conjunction with the reduced waste and the significantly less toxic nature of that waste, and prospect of a nuclear option that would be acceptable not only to Irish people, but the world as whole, is tantalising.

What is certain is that Ireland cannot stand alone from our European and world neighbours when it comes to taking action on climate change. Nor can we afford to ignore the opportunity that has been so carefully cultivated here over the last thirty-odd years in the form of the island as a data destination.

To honour the former and facilitate the latter, Ireland needs to make some tough decisions and bold investments, not just for 2020, but for the next 10 years, if we are to put in place a solid basis from which we can have a clean, sustainable and scalable power generation capacity. We cannot, as a country or a world community, ignore the climate situation. Even given the political turmoil the world has seen in recent years, the climate crisis is the greatest threat that humanity has seen since the Plague. If we do not tackle it now, it has the potential to be deadlier, according to estimates, than both world wars combined, due to collapsed economies, population displacement and food shortages.

If the world is to develop, it will take cooperation across frontiers to ensure that currently developing nations can be facilitated in their industrialisation in a clean, sustainable manner. This will mean huge investment from wealthy nations for clean power for the developing world, even as we transition from old, dirty sources.

Ireland can take a lead in this, becoming an example of how the transition can be made and what is necessary to accomplish it. Our power struggle can be an example for how the world of the future, being data driven, can be accommodated while meeting commitments for a carbon negative future.

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Craig Lodzinski, chief technologist, emerging technologies, Softcat

Core IT priorities

Security, cloud, the modern workplace and IT intelligence are key areas of development, this year and into the future

With the start of a new year, we try to look forward to what we think the IT world will hold over the coming twelve months. In conjunction with my colleagues in Softcat’s Office of the CTO, we have put our heads together, and made the following predictions, aligned to our four core IT priorities; Cyber Security, Cloud, Modern Workplace, and IT Intelligence.

Softcat’s Craig Lodzinski

Consolidation

One theme that is by no means unique to 2020 is vendor and platform consolidation. Nonetheless, there are a number of markets that are still ripe for consolidation. As we have seen over the years, new vendors and products eventually reach a market saturation point where mergers, acquisitions and restructuring take place. There are numerous segments where this may happen, but two that we see as particularly likely are Cyber security and data.

In cyber security, I have already seen the beginning of this, with start-ups including Cylance, Carbon Black, and Twistlock all being acquired by more traditional names, and this trend looks set to continue.

In the data market, the big bellwether has been the Cloudera-Hortonworks merger, indicative of broader struggles across the market as the technology landscape changes. In addition to this, the rapid portfolio expansion of traditional IT players, especially those in the software as a service (SaaS) and hyperscale cloud space is eroding the competitive advantages of smaller vendors, making it harder for them to compete.

Partially intertwined with this move to consolidation and simplification is our second big trend for 2020.

Employee choice

The world is changing rapidly, and as technology becomes more and more all-encompassing, the move from centralised to distributed control has become imperative. The need to increase agility, embrace new technologies and to attract, retain and utilise the best talent, all require the removal of barriers. This can take several forms, such as merging policy and identity, as in Azure AD Conditional Access, or using consolidated cloud billing models that enable operators to choose the right platforms at the right time.

Even across entire sectors such as healthcare and education, 2020 looks set to see technology used as a catalyst to devolve choice and data ownership closer to the individual, reflecting the importance of choice, but also the criticality of context and personal knowledge in making the right choice.

The degree of freedom that organisations are prepared to offer will differ, but this is a trend that we are seeing across the board, with the need to offer and support choice at the point of consumption being increasingly important across a huge range of touchpoints and processes.

Getting into the slightly more nitty-gritty, here is one that is perhaps a more traditional type of prediction.

AI will be everywhere in 2020

Artificial Intelligence (AI), and its associated technologies, have indeed been at the forefront of new developments, powering all kinds of new services and technologies, some with more spectacular effects than others. Thanks to half a century of science fiction, it also captures the imagination and headlines like few other technologies can. However, due to this, many organisations are guilty of ‘AI-Washing’ their products, promising the fabulous capabilities that thinking machines can bring.

This is by no means an AI-only problem, and I firmly believe that in the fullness of time AI, automation and machine learning (ML) technologies will become fundamental data services, underpinning applications and interactions. However, 2020 will not be the year that this happens.

There is still a lot of work to be done, and a resetting of expectations as to what new developments can bring to the table. Expect to see a lot more of AI this year, but you should retain a healthy scepticism for those who cannot explain what it does and how.

And to round us off, one last big broad prediction.

The new generation of outsourcing is here

As we all know, outsourcing is a terrific way to run your entire IT function, and always delivers great service at a reasonable price. However, traditional wholesale outsourcing of the entire IT function has fallen out of vogue. Despite this, it stands to reason that there are still numerous tasks that, for a variety of reasons, organisations wish to devolve outside of their own IT operational teams.

Security looks set to increasingly be an outsourced model, as data becomes more distributed and the threat model evolves, necessitating collective intelligence and huge scale to be effective.

Organisations are increasingly looking to procure their hardware on an ‘as a service’ model, whether that be the basics like desktops and printers, or the lifeblood of the organisation in server, storage and networking equipment, with vendors and resellers alike offering new consumption models to suit this more dynamic philosophy.

And of course, there is the cloud. Whether it is the enablement of SaaS behemoths like Salesforce and Workday, or native IaaS, PaaS and SaaS services, public cloud has driven this generation of incremental outsourcing with the main hyperscalers now encroaching into the traditional datacentre models to bridge that hybrid gap. As new services are launched, such as AWS’ EKS on Fargate, AWS Outposts, Azure Synapse analytics or Google Cloud Platform Anthos, these new technologies are increasingly being run in collaboration with the vendor, with some or all of the underlying management outsourced. This trend shows no sign of stopping, and 2020 will be a big year for this new wave of outsourcing.

Thank you for taking a look at our 2020 predictions, if you would like to know our thinking in more depth, check out the opening episode from the third season of our award-winning podcast, Explain IT, where my colleagues and I delve deeper into our predictions. Or for a more interactive chat talk to us on social, web, e-mail, semaphore, or the medium of dance.

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