Ireland has the potential to become the world’s green data-centre capital

12 Nov 2009

Eco-friendly data centres could be Ireland’s winning card to play during the digital age.

While Ireland’s broadband experience up to now can be summed up as lamentable, the country is home to an astonishing concentration of data centres that could make it the centre of the digital universe if it plays its cards right.

“Two pieces of infrastructure will define leadership in the digital age,” said the head of Microsoft’s global infrastructure group, Arne Josefsberg. “Fibre and data centres.”

Ireland’s first data centres

When the first data centres came to Ireland in the late nineties, they were at the time described as “engine rooms of e-commerce”. This is correct to a degree, but if you think of them as the engine rooms of everything digital you are nearer to the mark.

Ireland is home to around 25 data centres, through which technology giants such as Microsoft, Vodafone, Google, EMC, Yahoo! and drive most of their traffic and host most of their services for Europe.

Every month, more than 600 million people log onto MSN, for example, and Microsoft has completed a $500-million data centre here that will host this data for Europe as well as the next generation of Windows Azure cloud services for businesses.

On Google’s YouTube, some 20 hours of video are uploaded a minute – the equivalent of 1,200 TV stations being created every day in terms of content.

Benefit of the Irish climate

The ace card that Ireland holds is many of the data centres here are using the latest green technologies and systems to handle this kind of traffic. The key factor is Ireland’s ambient climate means many data centres don’t have to use their cooling equipment for much of the year.

Speaking at last week’s IBEC Audiovisual Conference on the ‘Explosion of Digital Content and TV’, Ronan Harris, managing director of online sales for EMEA at Google, explained that in 1999, Google had indexed 30 million pages. This is now well above 300 billion pages.

“By 2004, there were five exabytes on our servers – that’s one billion gigabytes – by 2008, this had grown to 20 exabytes.”

The size of the internet in May 2009 is believed to have reached 500 billion gigabytes – or 500 exabytes. According to the Digital Britain report, 494 exabytes of data was transferred across the globe on 15 June, 2009.

At the same conference, the vice-president and head of video for Europe at Cisco, George Stormeyer, said: “(The year) 2010 will see the increasing dominance of internet video, which people will watch either on their PCs or on their TVs. By 2012, 50pc of all internet traffic will be video, requiring a fundamental transformation in existing networks.”

A bit of background

To handle this, green data centres will be critical. Ireland’s foray into data centres began in 1999 when Worldport, 360 Networks, CityReach, Metromedia and COLT all built data centres in and around Dublin at a typical outlay of up to $75 million. The dotcom downturn of 2001 saw many of these companies go into liquidation. Smart investors, however, snapped up the vacant data centres.

For example, Data Electronics acquired a number of data centres, such as those of the Wolfe Group and Inflow Systems. Google bought COLT’s data centre and Vodafone acquired the CityReach data centre in north Dublin. Irish management teams also spotted the opportunity – Noel Meaney’s euNetworks acquired the €110-million Metromedia data centre in west Dublin, while Servecentric, led by former Xerox Ireland boss Aidan Donnelly, bought the WorldPort data centre in Blanchardstown.

According to Dermot O’Connell, general manager of Dell Ireland, the level of sophistication of many of these data centres in terms of use of green technology is impressive.

“Climate is a vital component. If many of these data centres were located in hotter climates they would be expensive to cool and spending on electricity would be much higher. Many providers are working on creating the equivalent of an Energy Star rating for data centres that will help businesses decide where to put their data.”

Eye on design

O’Connell said another vital factor is the changing design of these data centres. “The newer the data centre, the more efficient it is in terms of green. This is changing the design and efficiency of them because, as the world’s appetite for data increases, more servers are going to be needed. The latest data centres now have entire shipping containers with 2,500 servers inside installed at a time.”

Microsoft’s Josefsberg said environmental and energy efficiency is at the core of its data-centre decisions, such as the new data centre in Dublin, which employed 2,500 people over the course of its construction.

“Everything we build has sustainability in mind. Our first generation of data centres in Quincy, Washington, was carbon neutral and was also completely hydroelectric because it was powered by waterfalls.

“The Dublin data centre represents our third generation and, as well as being air cooled by the Irish climate, it uses less than 1pc of the water that other data centres use,” Josefsberg added.


Jack Mollen, EMC worldwide head of human resources

Ireland is also home to considerable expertise in how these data centres will operate.  EMC employs 1,600 people in Cork and its worldwide head of HR, Jack Mollen, says that, globally, $350 billion has been spent on data centres by the business world.

“But 70pc of that is just to maintain infrastructure. In Cork, we have developed virtualisation technology that reduced the number of servers in our data centre from 1,500 down to just 62.”

One of Ireland’s leading indigenous data-centre providers is Data Electronics, which has been in the business for 30 years. In 2002, the company expanded its Dublin City operations by acquiring a 22,000 sq-foot data centre in west Dublin. And, in recent months, the company opened a second major data centre in Ballycoolin, with more than 40,000 sq feet of data-centre space.

“Corporations around the world are consolidating their IT infrastructure and are preferring to put this into data centres,” explained Data Electronics’ CEO Maurice Mortell.

Having the right green credentials is essential to win deals, and Mortell said that Data Electronics has joined a Europe-wide green data-centre initiative, which focuses on using data centres in the greenest way possible. “Ireland’s climate does favour data centres.”

“Two pieces of infrastructure will define leadership in the digital age:
fibre and data centres.”

– Head of Microsoft’s global infrastructure group, Arne Josefsberg

One of the original of the data-centre companies to arrive in the late nineties and remain in business is Interxion, which recently unveiled a €12-million expansion plan. The managing director of Interxion in Ireland, Tanya Duncan, confirmed that businesses choosing to use data centres are asking questions around energy usage and sustainability.

“With green technology, there are cost savings that come into consideration.”

This, Duncan added, influences the design of data centres. “The technologies we employ, we build out modularly – we don’t put all the infrastructure in on day one assuming that it’s all filled with cabinet and we power up.

“We build out the square metres and power infrastructure to ramp up when we need to.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Green grow the data centres: pictured are Maurice Mortell, chief executive, Data Electronics; and Dermot O’Connell, general manager, Dell Ireland. Digital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of the economy depends.

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