How Governments Will Shape Data Centres

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Peter Judge

Governments’ energy policies and surveillance activities will unintentionally shape our data centres, says Peter Judge

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at data centres and their efficiency in 2013.  One theme stands out, and it’s a surprise: it is government involvement.

Am I serious? Governments don’t understand data centres in the first place, and they surely aren’t going to do much about efficiency and energy use there. When it comes to global warming governments have their heads firmly in the sand. And they are unlikely to move them from that position, because the boots of big industry – oil, gas and manufacturing – are firmly on the backs of their necks. But their positions on energy have a great effect on data centres.

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We ended 2012 with a UN meeting in Doha, which demonstrated the inability of the world’s governments to act on climate change. The Kyoto protocols, agreed in 1997, are fizzling out. There’s only a couple of countries still signed up and there’s nothing to replace them.

But since the start of the year, energy has been on the agenda. President Obama talked up low-carbon energy; here in Britain, our government has made lower-key moves towards nuclear, but has been roundly criticised for its methods. At the same time, both are heavily invested in fracking.

There have been concerted moves everywhere to get data centres into a tax regime where they can grow – and yet still be encouraged to reduce emissions – or at least the relative carbon footprint within such a fast-growing area.

Climate change agreement

There’s also been a tacit threat – at least in Europe – that data centres could be put under some sort of mandatory rules which require them to meet specifications such as the European Code of Conduct for Data Centres.

It’s not likely this will actually happen. How could a government mandate a technology which is undergoing rapid change? The Code of Conduct is not specific about any actual technologies, and any attempt to legislate for specific techniques (say free cooling) would stop innovation.

But the threat itself may be enough to get the industry organised. There’s signs of this from bodies like the Green Grid and techUK in Britain, bvoth trying to make government more aware of the role of data centres in industry.

And the first fruits of that is a “climate change agreement”, in Britain which handles the carbon impact of data centres outside the British tax system.

Surveillance fears

But the biggest impact of government on data centres this year has been deeply ambiguous: the revelation of the extent of surveillance by the intelligence services, and the collusion of the big cloud players with that snooping.

That’s been seen as a big driver away from consolidation onto public cloud services. It also led to protesters calling down curses on an NSA data centre being built in Utah – though only the faithful believed that the subsequent electrical fires were actually divine retribution.

Meanwhile, ironically, the size of the French government’s surveillance data stash only became clear because it boasted about how green the facility is.

So in 2013, governments have had a massive – and largely unintentional – impact on green data centres. In 2014, we will be dealing with the results of that.

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