The UK’s data centre industry acquired a new public voice in December 2010 when trade body the Data Centre Alliance appointed former MP and London mayoral candidate Steven Norris as its new president.
Norris is no stranger to the sector – he is chairman of the board of directors at Virtus Data Centres, a company that operates 25,000 square feet of data centre space in Enfield, Essex.
But in his role as president of the DCA, Norris will give the whole industry a much-needed outward voice, he says.
“Technically oriented industries like the data centre sector tend to look inward,” he says. “That means they forget that the outside may take a very different view of them from how they view themselves.”
The burning issue for the sector, he says, is its perception as a polluter. “Those of us in the industry know that data centres are reducing the environmental impact of the data explosion,” he says. “And yet, I see people in the press talking about data centres as if they were the problem rather than the solution.
“Data centres are certainly massive consumers of energy, but they consume that energy much more efficiently than organisations operating their own IT infrastructure,” he says.
As a conservative, Norris is no campaigner for government involvement in industry. However, there are things that Westminster could be doing to promote the interests of the data centre sector, he claims, which would in turn benefit both the economy and the environment.
One issue is planning. Applications to build new data centres are often refused due to the fact that they consume a lot of energy. “Many planning authorities view data centres as an unpopular asset class,” he says.
He believes that there is a role for government in educating these authorities about the environmental benefits of data centres. “There should be an application process for data centres, where the council gives consent provided that they achieve a standard of energy efficiency that is appropriate for data centres.”
Norris adds that the energy performance standards by which data centres are usually judged fail to take output into consideration. “One of the things that concerns me most is that current standards rely on technical drawings and specifications, rather than actually measuring the efficiency of the facilities.”
One government measure of which Norris is no fan is the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme’s performance league table. Published in November 2011, the table ranked the UK’s largest organisations according to their carbon emissions and measured their attempts to reduce those emissions. One of UK’s largest data centre operators, Global Switch, ranked joint last in the table.
“The table was a damp squib,” he says. “Whatever was intended by that list, it has become meaningless. In my personal view, it is a classic illustration of how if you give a problem to a civil servant, they’ll come up with a costly, bureaucratic method of measuring the wrong thing. What they should be measuring is output.”
Norris would oppose any rule obliging data centre operators to use renewable energy sources. “It is up to the energy companies to get the right mix of renewable and non-renewable energy,” he says. “The data centre operator’s job is to use that energy efficiently.”
Nevertheless, there is a time and a place for regulatory action – even from Brussels, says Norris. “I’m a massive Eurosceptic, but one of the EU’s greatest achievements has been on regulating automotive emissions,” he says. “They studied the market and the technology, and they told engine manufacturers that they would need to achieve certain emissions targets or they wouldn’t be able to sell their products. This was not legislating the technology, it was legislating the output.
“The EU should be looking at similar rules for server manufacturers,” he says. Manufacturers often recommend that their equipment is used at unnecessarily low temperatures, he says, leading data centre operators to waste energy on needless cooling. Taking on the hardware-makers may well require the collective power of the European Union, Norris remarks.
“It might be against the interests of data centre owners, because part of what we do is to offer more efficient cooling,” he admits. “But there would still be massive efficiencies in using data centres.”