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The data center dilemma: Balancing demand, energy, and environmental impact

Setting up an edge data center may have become increasingly difficult, but here is how you can overcome the obstacles.
Setting up an edge data center may have become increasingly difficult, but here is how you can overcome the obstacles.
14 February 2024 •

Whether you are scrolling through Instagram, watching a video on YouTube, or simply doing a quick Google search, all our regular online activities require the use of data. With the number of Internet users hitting a record high of 5.3 billion in 2023, the demand for data has skyrocketed. People want more data, and they want it faster too.

As online activities become more intertwined with operations, edge data centers have emerged as a strategic necessity for many organizations, and a critical component of modern infrastructure. These centers have also been vital in facilitating the growth and adoption of artificial intelligence by providing swift data processing.

To ensure that data can be processed faster, edge data centers are typically built nearer to data sources so that data travels over a shorter distance compared with traditional large-scale data centers built in secluded locations.

With data demand set to grow at a faster pace, more and more edge data centers have been popping up in Southeast Asia, where data capacity is estimated to grow by 19.4 percent by 2026.

However, setting up an edge data center is not a straightforward affair. Careful planning and evaluation of various factors, including location, scalability, redundancy, and security, are needed to ensure success.

With greater demand comes greater responsibility

Compared to five to 10 years ago, data centers today have to handle not just more data types, but also more complex data types, including semi-structured data. This requires more energy a precious commodity as the world fights climate change.

In 2022, data center energy consumption made up one to 1.3 percent of the global electricity demand.

Although edge data centers are greener compared to traditional hyperscalers, the amount of energy they consume is still substantial, given their growing numbers.
Although edge data centers are greener compared to traditional hyperscalers, the amount of energy they consume is still substantial, given their growing numbers.

Governing bodies have become more aware of the energy consumption of edge data centers, and many have established policies to keep track of the energy consumed by edge data centers. For example, the European Parliament recast the European Commission’s Energy Efficiency Directive in 2023, which included monitoring energy data from data centers.

Besides grappling with energy regulations, acquiring land to construct data centers is a challenge too. Governing agencies and regulatory bodies have made it harder for companies to build data centers. In the United States (U.S.), states such as Virginia have restricted data center construction to specified zones, making land an even more scarce resource.

Costly environmental studies must also be done before contracts are signed to ensure that data centers do not pose any environmental dangers to the location.

Supply chain constraints can still hold companies back even when a good piece of land is found. Lead times for key data center equipment have increased drastically in recent years. It now takes over 50 weeks to acquire generators and enclosures, compared to 10 to 12 weeks in 2021, while chillers take more than 70 weeks, compared to a week or less in 2021.

Planning is vital

Setting up a data center today may seem like an uphill task, but prudent planning can help to avoid and overcome many challenges.

Data center projects begin with finding a suitable location. When considering where to build a data center, companies should consider the surrounding environmental conditions. For example, constructing a data center in a hot and arid location will only cost you more energy, and money, for cooling. A location with lower surrounding temperatures and higher wind speeds can facilitate natural cooling of the data center and help reduce energy consumption.

Google’s edge data centers are often located near cities with high internet traffic, in close proximity to users.
Google’s edge data centers are often located near cities with high internet traffic, in close proximity to users.

Spending time to understand municipalities and governing bodies can help with selecting a location with favorable local regulations and security, and close to users to minimize latency. Organizations looking to build data centers should also collaborate with local and regional government offices to navigate regulations on data center construction. 

Planning for construction is also key. Using digital models, data sciences, and intelligent systems, companies can create detailed documents such as Bill of Materials and Bill of Quantities for their data centers. These data-driven technologies can help simplify infrastructure and help businesses plan more accurately, reducing the time, labor, and materials required to construct a facility.

In order to get ahead of supply chains, more companies are adopting modular designs and using prefabricated infrastructure – this helps to reduce construction costs and time. One company in Europe was able to slash the cost of constructing a 45MW facility by 20 percent and cut construction time from 17 to 11 months by using prefabricated and modular components.

Another aspect to consider while planning for construction is finding the right partners. Teaming up with service providers and manufacturers that have factories close to the data center’s construction site can provide localized staging and distribution of pre-purchased dedicated inventory, which will reduce the time needed to transport equipment and components for construction.

As challenging as it may be, organizations can circumvent challenges in constructing edge data centers by taking smart steps in the planning process.


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