Manufacturing & Supply Chain

Data centres: Are they unwanted but necessary guests in our landscape?

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Data centres: Are they unwanted but necessary guests in our landscape?

Data centres: Are they unwanted but necessary guests in our landscape?
March 29
15:24 2021
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They have become somewhat of an unwanted guest in some quarters in Ireland in recent years, akin to the perception of a foreign millionaire deciding to decamp to Ireland and making it home, telling locals how to do things, enjoying all the spoils, but not really contributing to their communities.

Big data centres are seen as usurpers of Irish land, taking up massive spaces but giving little back, leeching off the electricity grid and pumping little back into the community.

Is the picture that simple? Are they indeed faceless, joyless entities that take, take, take without providing any give?

Or are they an essential part of modern life, allowing us to keep up with instant information in an increasingly instant information age, and something we will come to accept?

An overview of what a data centre does

Prof Brian Norton: 'It is not just data that people produce, but it is data that the machinery around us automatically produces and shares. There is a huge amount of that.' Picture: Energy Ireland

Prof Brian Norton: ‘It is not just data that people produce, but it is data that the machinery around us automatically produces and shares. There is a huge amount of that.’ Picture: Energy Ireland

The Irish Examiner asked the head of energy research, with direct responsibility for the International Energy Research Centre (IERC), at Tyndall National Institute in Cork, to give an overview.

Professor Brian Norton, who is world-renowned in the field of energy research and is a former president of Dublin Institute of Technology, said a data centre is essentially just that, a centre where data is stored, managed, and processed.

“You know when people talk about the thing being in the cloud, from a computer perspective — the cloud is the big floppy thing in the sky, coming from a big thing called a data centre,” Prof Norton said.

“They are huge things, there are 2bn sq ft of them in the world, or slightly more. There are about eight million data centres, so they are big and they are abundant.”

It is no exaggeration to say they are ubiquitous, and needed if we are to continue the technological revolution, said Prof Norton.

“Where you are accessing stuff that is stored in the cloud, whether it is your Dropbox or your LinkedIn or whatever, that is in a data centre somewhere” 

“They are storing and processing — everything from that to online purchases to everything consumable.”

They are distributed globally for lots of reasons, according to Prof Norton. One is for security, he said.

“Obviously the connections want to be close to the data, but also there is varied legislation around various jurisdictions, on data being stored in that jurisdiction, for reasons of privacy, GDPR regulations, etc.”

These centres process so much essential data, that the society we have been hurtled into in recent years would not be so progressive in technological terms without them, Prof Norton said.

“The big thing, surprisingly, is not so much the data that people produce, but increasingly lots of our kit is connected by what is called the internet of things (IoT)

“Devices are connected to each other automatically, so you can think about things such as condition monitoring in modern motorcars, for example. It directly connects the internet itself and tells the company or the dealer how things are performing.

“The gas turbines, the jet engines in aircraft are always talking to the aircraft manufacturer, telling them how they are doing, for example.

“That kind of information, called the IoT, is a huge amount of data sharing. It is not just data that people produce, but it is data that the machinery around us automatically produces and shares. There is a huge amount of that.”

There are about 75bn devices directly connected to the internet, that are sharing information over the internet without human intervention, according to Prof Norton.

“The very computers we are talking on are sending stuff backwards and forwards all the time, without our intervention, in terms of the background noise and the information about the updating of software, etc. It is a huge, huge thing.

“All that data needs a lot of energy to feed it,” he said.

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