As IDA hunts for new land for data centres, we need to join the dots

26 Jan 2017

The third generation of data centres will be environmentally friendly and could be harnessed to give back to, rather than take from the environment. Image: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

IDA Ireland is understood to be on the hunt for suitable land banks for future data centres. The key here is visionary planning.

It has emerged that the IDA is seeking to identify potential land banks suitable for developing large-scale data centre projects.

It will be assessing land banks in each of the Dublin/mid-east, south-east, south-west, mid-west, midlands, west and north-west/north-east regions, according to the Irish Independent.

Clearly the availability of power, tier one fibre and good roads will be key to this.

Data centres are key to the digital economy and Ireland has done very well out of this infrastructure.

The data centre boom is about to enter its third age

The first phase of data centres in the late 1990s was almost swept away by the crash of 2001.

Some of them became stranded assets that were soon snapped up by savvy entrepreneurs like Ken Peterson of Columbia Ventures, who built the Hibernia Atlantic global fibre giant (recently sold to GTT for $590m) out the ashes of 360Networks, or Noel Meaney, who did likewise with the debris of Metromedia, which had data centre and fibre rings in Ireland and Europe.

As the internet revolution continued, bolstered by broadband, it gave way to smartphones, apps and the cloud. Data centres are now the engine rooms of the world’s data economy.

Ireland has more than 30 data centres currently active, with the majority based along the western fringes of Dublin.

Tech giants Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are in the midst of expanding their significant data centre footprints in Ireland.

Apple is currently trying to build a data centre in Athenry in Galway, which could be a game-changer for the economy of the entire west of Ireland but also renewable energy, if it can get past the legal and planning complexities.

A similar data centre announced by Apple around the same time in Denmark will likely be fully operational by the time the first sod is turned in Athenry.

This is unthinkable and unacceptable.

These complexities and hold-ups are dangerous in a fast-moving digital age.

If Ireland wants to win in the data centre business, planning and legal regimes that owe their legacy to the men in the mohair coats need to be removed.

Data centres, if designed well, need not disrupt the environmental ecosystem, and the next generation of data centres could actually do more to help the environment and make practical use of CO2.

The kind of joined-up thinking I am talking about is already evident in Stockholm, where excess heat from data centres is going to be used to heat at least 10,000 apartments across the city.

Under a bold new partnership between the City of Stockholm, Fortum Värme, Ellevio, Stokab and Invest Stockholm, excess heat generated by data centres will be funnelled back into a heatsink that can then be distributed to the city’s municipal heating system.

In this way, a data centre with 10MW capacity can heat around 20,000 modern residential apartments.

If you think about it, most of the data centres on Dublin’s western edges are located in clusters and are close to electricity generation plants. By this logic, 30 data centres could, in theory, be used to heat 600,000 homes.

While Dublin lacks the district heating infrastructure that Stockholm has built up over the last 60 years, there is no reason why this kind of thinking cannot be employed, at least in future data centre planning.

If a data centre cluster is to be located in Kildare or Galway or Meath, should the example of Stockholm to take excess heat and CO2 and turn it into something useful, like heating for homes, not be considered?

All it takes is joined-up thinking.

One thing is clear: the data revolution is burgeoning, and the IDA knows that more data centres will need to be built.

The ponderous legal and planning regime in Ireland is antiquated and no longer fit for purpose.

Companies like Apple have no patience for this kind of expensive dithering and neither do the locals who want jobs and a vibrant local economy.

The digital tide should be designed to raise all boats.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years