Data Centers, Design, Energy, Resilience

In March, David Higgins joined AECOM to lead the EMEA data center sector. David is an experienced business leader in the critical environments and energy sectors, having worked across operational, commercial and general management disciplines both in the UK and globally. We sat down with David to discuss his experience starting a new data center sector leadership role during a global pandemic and what key drivers are impacting the sector.

 What was it like starting a new role just as coronavirus lockdown was imposed in the UK?

Starting a new role with a large geographic remit can be challenging at the best of times, but joining during a global pandemic and its associated regional lockdowns certainly added a new dimension.

AECOM was already well-connected globally, having staff familiar with working and collaborating remotely across all our geographies, but the move to a majority of the workforce working from home presented technological, logistical and practical challenges that to a large extent were met successfully, not only in our, but also for our clients and partners. In some ways it’s surprising how seamless this transition was and how minimally it disrupted productivity. Although it still feels a little strange only having met and worked with my global colleagues and clients over virtual calls.

How do you feel the data  industry has adapted and supported the wider economy during this unprecedented time?

Technology and cloud solution providers have adapted to and coped well with this new way of working despite the surges in demand we have seen across all digital infrastructure platforms.

So much has changed this past decade in our ability to communicate, collaborate, entertain and educate by utilising the digital infrastructure that our global data centres support. This has certainly made the current lockdowns more manageable.

It is also a testament to our industry that we have not witnessed many significant outages, which would have had an even more profound effect had we not been prepared for virtual work. It appears that a bigger threat to our data centre environments is from sustained “cyber attacks” rather than physical critical infrastructure failures.

What are some of the key takeaways from working remotely during a lockdown?

A key learning from my perspective is how many data centres are still heavily reliant on human intervention in some form or another. While we haven’t witnessed many outages, imagine a slightly different scenario where utility and fuel supplies were impacted, and technical staff couldn’t get to key sites — that’s when we would clearly have had major impacts.

There has been a change in our industry over the course of the past few years in that resilience was not just associated with single sites built to a very high level of redundancy, but by having multiple data centre locations across multiple geographies providing this intrinsic resilience. In a pandemic where all sites could be equally and simultaneously impacted over a potentially prolonged period, brings in to question again key design and ongoing facility support fundamentals for the future, the prime power provision source and its associated back up, and the monitoring and support of these facilities without key staff on-site.

What are some of the changes you foresee in the industry going forward?

The appetite to increase global data centre footprint and capacity seems undiminished and is understandable given the current and projected demand, which has been even more underscored through this pandemic.

With data centres as one of the major power consumers globally, the big challenge and opportunity as we emerge from this pandemic is in finding energy-efficient solutions to temperature control and increasing renewable power use in new builds. These are areas in which AECOM is investing time and research to explore future solutions.

The use of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics to further enhance identification of potential faults, enabling prevention measures and improving reliability of services within facilities will have major impacts.

Edge computing and micro data centres providing lower latency are becoming an increased focus to support a multitude of technologies and data from the Internet of Things. A good example of this work that we are involved in is with smart city transport systems across the world and the use of AI to improve real-time traffic information to reduce congestion.

What do you see as key drivers and innovations in the coming years?

Renewable power provision, water consumption and the operational efficiency of these facilities will be key drivers. Organisations such as Microsoft have made some ambitious targets for overall carbon reduction that will drive the industry. As advisors, designers and construction consultants for these facilities, AECOM is in the driver’s seat to meet these challenges.

Workspace design accommodates people and their needs; data centre design accommodates computerised micro processing and its associate hardware.

Real change and innovation to future design of data centres could be seen in the move beyond the bounds of current silicon based micro processing. Long-standing market leaders such as Intel, AMD, NVIDIA are investing heavily in R&D here, as well as Amazon Web Services and Google.

The step change could be huge in a breakthrough with quantum computing and/or in other material use in microprocessors such as graphene. The associated changes needed in the design and operation of data centres with this technology could be profound, let alone the possibilities for the future technologies and applications they could support.

More than ever, we need to be agile and seek to recognise new inventions on the horizon, accept change, be creative and bring true innovation. This is an exciting and dynamic sector to work in and one I would recommend to all pre- and post-graduate engineers to consider.

Originally published Jun 16, 2020

Author: David Higgins