Inside the Data Centre: The Physical Side of the Digital World

You may have noticed that over the last few weeks your email inbox has been getting overwhelmed with messages about data protection, privacy policies and GDPR.

You’ve probably spared a few moments to think about the consent you’re providing to certain companies (or the consent you’re withdrawing), but there’s another side to data protection that consumers rarely think about – the physical server rooms where every profile and cookie is being stored.

Engineer checking on the data centre protection

If it’s never really crossed your mind before, here are a few interesting facts to help you brush up on your data centre knowledge.

There are a LOT of data centres…

Across the world, there are more than 7,500 dedicated data storage facilities – over 2,600 of which are housed in the world’s 20 largest cities. London has the greatest concentration of these (337) anywhere in the world, closely followed by the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area in the US, which has just over 300 data centres. This figure is expected to grow by 21% over the course of 2018.

…and they use a LOT of electricity

All of those servers? They use a lot of power to stay constantly running. The US National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that data centres are responsible for up to 3% of the entire world’s electricity consumption – although this figure is being controlled with research into more efficient practices (more on that later).

At the moment, the average data centre uses 100 times more power than a large commercial office, and bigger facilities can use the same amount of electricity as a small US town. A huge percentage of this energy is consumed simply by keeping the massive electrical units cool so that they can continue to function properly without overheating. Other factors include numerous back-up generators and complex sensor systems to ensure that the servers are protected against everything from a slight fluctuation in temperature to serious seismic activity.

Data centres are an expanding part of our lives

As mentioned earlier, the number of data centres is set to increase by 21% in the next year alone. Despite this, it was estimated in 2011 that almost 40% of large companies would be exceeding their current IT capacity within 18 months – a gap which has closed significantly in 2018.

Not only is our dependence on data centres growing, but so are the facilities themselves. ‘Hyperscale’ centres are springing up all over the world, with a facility spanning 6.3 million square feet operating in Langfang, China and an even bigger one in Reno, Nevada called ‘The Citadel’, which is 7.2 million square feet.

The good news is that these behemoth storage units utilise cutting-edge technology so that their cooling systems and energy supply are actually more energy efficient than smaller hubs. The site in Reno, for example, is powered exclusively by renewable energy – something which will hopefully influence 8% of all data centres that are open in 2020.

Eco-friendly, sustainable data centre

Sustainability is a big issue

Clearly, if our dependence on data centres is growing then we need to come up with a way that they can continue to increase in numbers and size while their overall energy consumption remains controlled. According to some reports, we’re currently on track for data centres to be responsible for around 20% of the world’s energy usage by 2025.

To prevent this from having a hugely negative impact on global fuel production and pollution, it’s going to be essential that clean, green power solutions can be implemented across the world – not just in Reno.

In a 2016 report by the NRDC, it was suggested that in addition to energy efficient operations, companies could, should and would be switching to cloud computing solutions. This would cut the demand on physical data centres and reduce the energy being used by server farms.

Security is an even bigger issue

Finally, the most important issue: security. Not only is digital security paramount, but physical security is important too. You might not be surprised to learn that data centres are increasingly using all kinds of tech such as “in-flight” encryption to keep data protected while it’s travelling through wires. However, you might not have thought about the defences employed to prevent physical attacks to these sensitive data storage units.

For example, when entering a facility you might need to walk through an airlock-type enclosure, with just enough room for one person to stand so that an unauthorised visitor cannot simply “tailgate” verified personnel. You’re also likely to find biometric scanners, walls made of concrete 4 feet deep and bomb-resistant security glass – if there are any windows at all.

As you might imagine, it takes a lot of precision to design and build a facility that meets the physical and technological security demands of a data centre. There are even dedicated engineering firms like BSE3D that specialise in building these advanced facilities.

So, the next time your social media profile takes a while to load or you sign up to a company newsletter, you can have a much better idea of where all your data is going!