Top 10 datacentre stories of 2020

Much of the 2020 datacentre news cycle has been dominated by the colocation and hyperscale operators’ efforts to rapidly adapt to the unprecedented levels of demand for cloud services across the world as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.

As governments around the world issued “stay at home” mandates for their citizens, enterprises had no choice but to embrace remote working and found themselves having to rapidly pick up the pace of their digital transformation efforts to ensure their IT systems were equipped to cope.

In many cases, this led to enterprises having to ramp up their use of public cloud-based compute resources, both from an infrastructure and software perspective, which created challenges of its own for the datacentre operators responsible for hosting these services.

Not only have they needed to ensure they have sufficient spare datacentre capacity to meet demand, but site upgrades have also been affected by Covid-19-related supply chain issues and social distancing challenges.

At the same time, the industry has found itself under growing pressure to clean up its act from a sustainability point of view, as environmental issues and climate change concerns continue to climb up the boardroom agenda for enterprises across the globe.

In response, some of the industry’s biggest players have gone public with commitments to cut their carbon emissions this year, and pledges to ramp up their use of renewable energy to ensure the industry’s continued growth does not come at the expense of the environment.

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 datacentre stories of 2020:

1. Colocation market growth gets off to great start in 2020

The colocation industry was already on course for another strong year of growth coming into 2020, driven in no small part by the continued demand for datacentre capacity from the hyperscale cloud giants that persisted throughout 2019.

Data published in February 2020 by real estate consultancy CBRE served to confirm this trend was likely to continue over the coming 12 months, given the revelation that some operators went into 2020 with sizeable portions of their facilities already pre-let despite these datacentres not even being built yet.

As a result, this fuelled further speculation (and a little concern) that space within the Europe’s major colocation hubs may soon start running out, and that operators need to start investing in building server farms in other locations to meet demand.  

2. Covid-19 prompts demand for datacentre capacity to soar even further

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic put into motion a sequence of events that have contributed to the demand for datacentre capacity soaring even higher than expected over the course of 2020.

As governments across the world issued stay-at-home orders to arrest the growth of the pandemic, consumers turned to internet-based streaming and communication services like never before in pursuit of entertainment, while enterprises rushed to deploy cloud-based collaboration tools to enable remote working.

According to data published by property consultancy Knight Frank and datacentre analyst house DC Byte, this contributed to colocation take-up rates being 50% higher during the first half of 2020 compared with the previous year.

3. Microsoft’s European datacentres suffer capacity shortages as Covid-19 takes hold

Microsoft is among the public cloud giants to have witnessed a huge surge in demand for its productivity and collaboration services during the pandemic, and – in April 2020 – its datacentres clearly started to feel the strain.

Following reports on social media of Microsoft users running into technical difficulties when attempting to deploy virtual machines hosted within its European datacentres, the software giant was forced to introduce metering measures to ensure it had sufficient capacity to meet demand.

The company said at the time that it was “expediting” efforts to bring additional datacentre capacity online, but would be – temporarily – prioritising the use of cloud resources by mission-critical groups (including first responders) and existing customers.

4. Covid-19 prompts calls for datacentre operators to suspend non-essential site upgrades

The datacentre industry also faced other challenges during the pandemic, as lockdown measures affecting various countries across the globe impacted supply chains and made it difficult for operators at times to source the hardware needed to kit out their facilities.

In some instances, this (coupled with social distancing mandates) also created complications in ensuring the construction of new datacentres could continue as planned, with operators being initially advised to suspend any non-essential upgrades and builds for these reasons.

5. Datacentre industry rises to prominence during pandemic

What the pandemic has undoubtedly highlighted just how dependent the world, and its increasingly digital economy, is on datacentres, and it is fair to say that government policy-makers and investors have certainly taken notice of this during 2020.

In the UK specifically, this manifested itself in the decision to include datacentre staff on the government’s key workers list (granting them exemptions from the lockdown travel exemptions) and the creation of a designated team within government to give the sector a voice on Covid-related matters.

6. Microsoft reveals results of two-year underwater datacentre trials

While the industry as a whole scrambled to ensure enterprises and consumers had sufficient cloud capacity to see them through the Covid-19 crisis, the hyperscalers continued to push the envelope in terms of datacentre design innovation.

With the industry continually striving to improve the performance, resiliency and power consumption of their facilities, Microsoft announced the results of its multi-year underwater datacentre trial.

The project saw Microsoft deploy a 40ft prototype facility, 117ft under water, off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland during the spring of 2018, and concluded that submerged server farms are more than eight times more reliable than those in on-land facilities.

The software giant has since confirmed that the lessons learned from the project will be used to inform the edge computing strategy for its Azure public cloud datacentres, so it can work out where best to host “tactical and critical” workloads.

7. Google continues on green datacentre innovation push

Out of all of the hyperscale cloud giants, Google’s track record on sustainability takes some beating, with the company revealing further details of the lengths it is going to make its datacentres even greener this year.

The public cloud and internet search giant published details of a pilot project running within its datacentres back in April 2020 involving the use of an in-house developed carbon-intelligent computing system that ensures non-urgent compute tasks are undertaken when its facilities are most likely to be powered by renewable energy.

The system uses forecast data to predict when supplies of wind and solar power are likely to be at their most plentiful, and schedules non-urgent tasks to take place during peak renewable energy supply periods.

“This is done without additional hardware and without impacting on the performance of Google services like Search, Maps and YouTube that people rely on around the clock,” said Ana Radovanovic, technical lead for the Carbon-Intelligent Computing system, in a blog post.

8. Colocation community makes carbon reduction commitments

The datacentre industry has come under continued pressure over the past decade or so to clean up its act from a sustainability perspective, and 2020 has seen various major players from the colocation space commit to doing more than ever before to cut their carbon emissions.

Among the first was Digital Realty, which went public with a 10-year, climate science-led, business-wide pledge to cut its carbon emissions by 2030 in May 2020, with several of its competitors – including CyrusOne – following suit shortly after.

As for why so many of the colocation community are committing to action now, the prediction by analyst house 451 Research in October 2020 that sustainability will become a source of competitive difference for the colocation community by 2023 may go some way to explaining why.

9. Datacentre industry counts costs of under-investing in resiliency

While sustainability emerged as a growing investment priority for datacentre operators during 2020, the year also served to highlight why the sector can ill afford to ignore investing in projects to bolster the uptime and resiliency of their facilities.

According to research published by industry think-tank the Uptime Institute in July 2020, the financial fallout of datacentre outages continues to grow year on year, with operators freely admitting that many of these downtime incidents could be avoided if they invested more in resiliency.

“It is clear that outages occur with disturbing frequency, that bigger outages are becoming more damaging and expensive, and what has been gained in improved processes and engineering has been partially offset by the challenges of maintaining ever more complex systems,” said the accompanying report.

10. TikTok commits to building first European datacentre in Ireland

It is fair to say that 2020 has been something of a tumultuous year for short-form video social networking site TikTok. While user numbers have soared during the year, its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, found itself under pressure to offload its US operations at the behest of outgoing president Trump or face closure in August 2020.

Undeterred, the company set out plans around the same time to open its first European datacentre in 2022 in Ireland, as part of a concerted push to improve the performance of the service, and safeguard the data of its European user base better.

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