How national should data centers be? by Peter Judge
I am very used to the idea that the cloud means data can be held, carried and processed anywhere. I’ve stopped using word processing packages on my own machines except in very desperate situations. I know I can’t access the cloud on a plane, but I rarely fly anywhere, and when I do, I sleep most of the flight. .
The fact that my data is somewhere else may have some small downsides - occasionally slow responses, and very occasional data loss. But, the upside is, it allows me to be disorganised. Get interrupted and put down a piece of work on one system, and I can pick it up on another one.
Bigger organisations seem to be understanding this more slowly. BMW, for instance apparently had to do extensive testing before it decided it was OK to ship its high-performance computing (HPC) jobs off to Iceland.
Since the latency was probably less than 100ms that seems a cautious approach to me, though I guess BMW has to be a bit more careful about backups and reliability, and possibly data protection issues than I do.
That story - along with plenty of others shows that data center work can, at least in principle, be shifted anywhere.
Governments are picking up on this slightly slower than big data centre using organisations. Iceland’s government has backed the idea, adding its support to the natural advantage of cheap renewable energy, and promoting better fiber links to the country.
But other governments? Well, they aren’t necessarily so keen. Data centers can be good business to have in your country, generating wealth for you, and governments should be considering whether to pitch to have that business within their shores.
The UK is hesitating over whether to give the data center industry special status - with its own Climate Change Agreement, amounting to tax breaks in exchange for co-ordinated energy efficiency moves.
To rate this treatment, the data center industry has to prove it generates wealth and show it is vulnerable to foreign competition. Are data centers vulnerable to foreign competition? Well, that is head-slappingly obvious given what I’ve said above. And data centers certainly generate money, so maybe it should be a done deal.
Some hesitation might come if a national government asks whether the nation can afford to provide the energy these data centers need. In the UK, for instance, we are heading for a generation capacity crisis, where energy prices are set to go up for everyone as we scramble to build capacity or save on usage in order to balance the energy books.
Give data centers special status, make their energy artificially cheaper, and maybe the rest of us will have to pay. And we’d be subsidising something that can’t match the lower energy costs elsewhere, so it might turn out to be a losing struggle, as the data centers move away anyway. .
According to a survey from Data Center Dynamics, the power demand of data centers is going up rapidly - though their census does include both in-house (possibly inefficient) server rooms, alongside more efficient cloud sites.
Data centers can do a lot to reduce their energy needs. In each country, I guess someone will have to judge whether they can cut those demands enough. If not, I wonder if data centers might turn out to have a negative impact on GDP? I don’t think that would be the case in the UK, but it might be so in in some countries.
There’s an instinctive desire to keep any business within the country, to help build the economy. But in some cases, that might turn out to be as backward as if BMW insisted on keeping its data on German servers.
Is it possible that national pride in data centers might be missing the point of the cloud?