Consumer habits and data protection regulations have rocket-boosted the data centres expansion over recent years. We need data, we want it quickly, but that hunger has also presented a threat to sustainability in an already resource-hungry industry, and it’s one the sector is now working tirelessly to thwart.

Even emails contribute to our carbon footprint, and if you ask Patrick Leniston, you might want to think twice before copying in your whole company’s staff. And that’s just a tiny microcosm of the exorbitant data increase driving the expansion of data centres around the world.

Patrick is the Regional Director for Western Europe at Gleeds, overseeing our experts’ efforts to project and cost manage the ambitious data centre projects being instigated in this part of the world. We sat down with him to learn more about how the sector has evolved over the years.

What is the biggest challenge facing the delivery of data centres right now?

Outside of finding available land with the right characteristics, an increasing problem now is sustainability. Data centres have a reputation for not exactly being the most sustainable asset type in the world, be it in terms of energy consumption, water usage, or greenhouse gas emissions. These points are also increasingly impacting administrative approvals to actually build or expand a new data centre. 

From city to city across Western Europe, the degree to which sustainability poses a challenge for data centres varies. In Paris, the process for administrative approval is slowing down a lot in response to concerns over carbon footprinting. And at the moment, finding plots of land with the power capacity to service a data centre in places like Amsterdam is a real struggle. 

On the back of that, the data centre sector is facing a significant skills gap. In most areas, the market has become constrained and it’s increasingly difficult to procure contractors to deliver the work per requirements. The wider industry is also experiencing high price inflation not only in materials but in specialist labour also, and that’s why we strive extra hard at Gleeds to tap into local markets to find the best contractors offering the right expertise for the job. 

What’s driving the rapid growth of the data centres sector?

Within EU legislation has been a huge catalyst for data centres growth – GDPR alone has created huge demand. Before, a lot was done in the U.S. Now, you need to know where your data is. You can’t just put all your data back to the data centres overseas anymore. 

But consumer habits are also playing a big role in driving the growth. We want speed, and as we become more dependent on our various mobile devices, we expect more out of them. If the data you’re requesting has to travel across the Atlantic every time you ask for it, you’re not going to be happy.

We’re using a lot more data we didn’t need before. Things like cloud storage are an easy culprit to point to, but people overlook something as basic as the sheer volume of emails being sent around. You might think duplicate emails are harmless but it’s actually destructive because all those emails are extra data, which means more physical data storage space being used within a data centre, which in turn increases our carbon footprint. There’s good reason why at Gleeds, for example, we’ve been embedding best practice into our culture surrounding emails – basic things like not copying in everybody into a thread, not keeping duplicates of emails, etc. Good for work life balance also 

The rapid rise in demand has led to the creation of hyperscale centres, in themselves more efficient, which are at least ten times bigger than the ones we did 10 to 15 years ago. In Western Europe alone, we’re seeing a doubling in capacity across cities like Amsterdam, Madrid, Frankfurt, Paris, Munich, and Berlin.

How has the sector been evolving to tackle these challenges?

Edge data centres will help combat unnecessary increases to our carbon footprint and power consumption. They’re much smaller and localised than regular or hyperscale centres.

Edge centres also make a lot more practical sense in many cases. Do you need to go back to a huge data centre on the other side of the planet every time you need to retrieve information? No, there are some bits you can get more locally via smaller data centres closer to where people live, where the speed of connection is less important and there’s less data. It just means you’re spending less energy and reducing the carbon footprint in the process.

Beyond that, the main gains have been in secret proprietary technologies being developed by our clients to solve these problems – but broadly speaking, technology, equipment, and computer manufacturing have evolved, as has our knowledge and understanding of their lifecycle. 

Just 15 years ago, we had this tendency to overcool IT equipment, we still very often use air to cool down equipment, liquid technology by some players have had huge impact, using modern means of storing power to avoid those olde diesel emergency generators, etc… 

Are edge centres easier in practice to deliver?

They’re smaller, so the power demands are inherently less, but you’ve still got the same level of security risks to contend with, meaning the complexity isn’t necessarily any lesser. 

How is data centre delivery different across different countries around the world?

There are always regional or country-specific ways of procuring work, but data centres make for one of the more global sectors out there. It’s a highly competitive and international space, so the field, is in fact very concentrated.

Ultimately, when you’re building large data centres of a certain scale, there are only so many providers of certain types of equipment. So, there’s a lot of common ground, especially on the cost management side (within project management, you see more unique differences related to a country’s standards and practices).

The benefit of this is that from an expertise point of view, it’s easy for us to make good use of our knowledge around the world, and at Gleeds, we’re always getting better at linking our knowledge globally with local delivery. That experience is especially important in this sector because data centres are a bit like the scouts: you need the badge before you have the right to play. We pride ourselves on having already helped our clients deliver key and innovative data centres around the globe. 

What makes up Gleeds’ guiding philosophy on helping clients deliver data centres?

Predominantly, we provide early advice on where the stumbling blocks are going to be found. We do this whilst recognising that we’re not likely to remove the stumbling blocks, but that we can mitigate or manage them by identifying risks early on through our sector knowledge and making sure that’s integrated into the overall plan to avoid surprises.

We’re helping clients with very specific procurement routes they seek globally. We help translate that into local practice because some local markets will not agree to being procured a certain way, so we need to bridge the gap.

We are also developing our own training programme and promoting international mobility from what region to the next so that expertise is shared and experienced across the globe.

Speak to Patrick
Patrick Leniston

Patrick Leniston
Regional Director, Western Europe