Saturday 13 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 25, 2023 - January 7, 2024

Advancements in the digital world have led to an increase in the number of data centres, but their colossal energy demands and environmental impact call for an urgent transformation. With Malaysia offering 5G coverage, data centres are poised for a significant evolution in a few key areas, says Kelvin Fong, managing director of Asia-Pacific at EdgeConneX.

These include an increase in connectivity, as data centres focus on optimising network infrastructure for seamless communication; infrastructure development, as 5G coverage expands to all areas of the country, including rural areas; as well as the development of smaller edge computing facilities, with such facilities becoming more common to allow faster processing of data and applications, particularly for services dependent on low latency.

EdgeConneX recently entered Malaysia with plans to open its own range of data centres, owing to the sector’s rapid growth in the country. The total IT load supply is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 40% from 2022 to 2027.

Data centre providers face a host of technical, regulatory and environmental challenges. These include having to comply with evolving regulations; a shortage of skilled talent for data management, cybersecurity and cloud computing requirements; a need for political stability; and meeting escalating data storage needs. Addressing these factors will be critical for sustaining the growth and resilience of Malaysia’s data centre sector, says Fong.

Energy efficiency and sustainability are also key components to consider. “Balancing the need for increased computing power with energy efficiency and environmental sustainability will be a continuous challenge. This may involve investing in renewable energy sources and implementing energy-efficient technologies,” says Fong.

The answer to going green may lie in leveraging renewable energy sources — a necessary solution as data centres consume about 1% of the energy produced globally, according to a DataSpan report. 

“Alongside solar power, renewable energy produced from biomass or biogas could play a role in the future. Biomass, such as agricultural residues, organic waste or dedicated energy crops, could be used to generate electricity for data centre facilities. Biomass power generation has the potential to provide a consistent and reliable source of renewable energy,” says Fong.

Existing data centres could upgrade to energy-efficient technologies such as advanced cooling systems and power distribution. Implementing sustainable building design principles, such as natural lighting and eco-friendly materials, could also significantly boost the energy efficiency of these facilities.

It is a move that companies at various levels of the data centre value chain are already exploring. A good example is the partnership between water tech firm Hydroleap and IX Technology (IXT), a Singapore-based mechanical and electrical infrastructure provider for data centres. 

“Data centres rely heavily on water for cooling systems, which are crucial in managing the heat generated by servers and computing equipment. This significant water usage presents alarming issues, particularly in water-scarce regions. Additionally, the traditional water-cooling methods involve chemical treatment, which can result in environmental contamination if not properly managed. For data centres, the cost implications extend beyond the chemicals to encompass training for personnel, storage, disposal and general maintenance,” says Mohammad Sherafatmand (Moh), founder and CEO of Hydroleap.

Hydroleap’s patented electro-oxidation technology (HL-EO) could help save 70% to 80% of blowdown water while requiring zero chemicals and minimum manpower, adds Moh, and it is one of the reasons why IXT believes this partnership could benefit data centres in Malaysia and within the region.

After all, implementing sustainability initiatives in established data centres — which are considered brownfield projects — poses a challenge due to a need for disruptive modifications and an uncertain return on investment, says Steven Lee, founder and managing director of IXT. Conversely, new projects, or greenfields, find it easier to adopt sustainable practices as they are often motivated by government incentives, presenting a more favourable landscape for their implementation.

Hydroleap’s solution is just one of the many innovations data centre providers can expect. Fong predicts that there will be a surge in high-performance computing that promises to enhance the capabilities for scientific research, artificial intelligence (AI) development and complex simulations.

He believes that data centre evolution hinges on several key factors. For starters, AI integration promises to heighten efficiency via task automation — spanning resource allocation, predictive maintenance and security protocols.

By embracing sustainability, data centre providers will pivot towards renewable power sources such as solar and wind energy. Meanwhile, the synergy between cloud computing and 5G connectivity will spark innovation, leading to amplified computing power and faster networks.

This will open the doors to the exploration of the metaverse, augmented reality and virtual research and development, with the potential to revolutionise immersive learning experiences. These improvements will open up a transformative path for data centres, shaping an era of efficiency, sustainability and technological advancements, says Fong.

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