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Data centres: ‘The arteries and organs of the Internet and all that runs and relies upon it’

Data centres: ‘The arteries and organs of the Internet and all that runs and relies upon it’

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Data centres are the lifeblood of modern civilisation, says Neil Cresswell, CEO of VIRTUS Data Centres, and it’s hard to disagree as we find ourselves depending upon them more and more for enabling technology advancements in today’s digital world. It’s therefore the responsibility of data centre providers to keep their facilities safe, secure and available, and most importantly, reliable. We caught up with Cresswell who offers some further insight into the world of data centres in the modern age and how VIRTUS is adapting and evolving to offer its customers around the world the best opportunities for innovation.

Can you discuss the scope of your responsibility and how this has evolved during your time with the company?

I joined VIRTUS Data Centres as CEO in April 2013, when the company was just two years old. I was charged with building a successful, high-growth, profitable business with a reputation for quality, innovation and customer service. We grew from one small data centre to being the leading operator in one of the world’s top three data centre markets in eight years, so we are a very different company now to what we were then.

The last eight years have been really exciting; the world of Digital Transformation evolves quickly and VIRTUS has achieved everything from site acquisitions, to building new facilities, to keeping our customers and our customers’ customers online so that people can work, shop and socialise virtually during the past 18 months. I am responsible for the overall leadership, growth and development of the business and our number one focus is operational excellence in areas like safety, security and availability.

How has the business grown since it started and how have you ensured its growth?

Since it started in 2011, VIRTUS has grown from one data centre of 3MW, to being London’s number one data centre provider. VIRTUS now operates 11 of London’s leading facilities, providing over 200MW of IT load space to customers in and around London and globally.

When the company first launched, VIRTUS was a challenger brand with a refreshing business model and ethos, enabling it to be a far more flexible and customer-friendly data centre provider than the existing corporate providers. This caused disruption in the market at a time when businesses, especially the global cloud hyperscalers, were in need of high-quality, well-connected, large, flexible data centre space in the London area at massive scale. Working with a flexible trusted partner as part of their delivery chain was key to their success. We were one of the pioneers of this type of service back then. VIRTUS, with its new approach and business model, quickly established itself as a valuable IT partner – not just a colocation provider.

What are some of the key challenges for data centre operators today?

Safety is always our number one concern and that has been heightened during the pandemic; safety of our staff, customers and partners. As an organisation, we are very risk averse and being ready to deal with anything that could go wrong 24/7 is in our DNA.

Some other challenges for data centre operators today include improving sustainability. Large efficient data centres like ours are the most effective way of providing for modern computing’s massive demands, and improving this efficiency has been very important to VIRTUS since day one. It’s no coincidence that back in 2011 we chose the colour green for our brand. Since then, we have been a leader in EMEA in performance and efficiency; we were the first to deploy technologies like independent fresh air cooling in 2014 and the first to commit to 100% renewable energy sources five years ago.

Data centres are already far more energy efficient in comparison to previous models of computing. One of the most efficient ways to deliver a unit of computing (energy per compute unit) is to put it in a large, modern, advanced data centre on a cloud platform. Developments in power and cooling have also enabled greater data centre efficiency, and today’s data centre providers are at the forefront of deploying some of the most sustainable buildings globally. Some data centres, including VIRTUS, are already committed to using 100% carbon-zero energy – powering the sites solely via wind, solar and tidal energy sources. We appreciate that as customers grow globally, pushing up their data centre space requirements, the industry is both duty-bound and regulated (the EU Commission set a ‘green deadline’, noting that the industry ‘should become climate neutral by 2030‘) to lead innovations in how to make all facilities the most energy efficient they can be – and we continue to work internally and with our supply chain to achieve this objective.

Increasing scale, sophistication and speed of customer requirements is also a driver that keeps us innovating.

How does VIRTUS deliver state-of-the-art data centre solutions to its customers?

Operational Excellence is where the truly great data centre providers lead. There are some design innovations that can make a difference in terms of efficiency and robustness, but in the main, the core infrastructure parts are pretty similar within every data centre worldwide. The difference lies in how you design, build, test, maintain, change and operate the facility – ensuring robust and reliable availability is delivered. Inevitably, things will break; it’s how you plan for these incidents and your response to check and test all is restored and working effectively which makes the difference. This is where experience is also key. The data centre needs to be designed, built and operated by people who have had many years doing the job and know what to look out for.

How does VIRTUS play an integral role in supporting the Digital Transformation journey of UK organisations?

I believe that data centres are the lifeblood of modern civilisation – without them, society simply couldn’t function in this digital age. Data centres and networks are the arteries and organs of the Internet and all that runs and relies upon it, which is increasingly everything. We enable all the great technology advancements our customers are achieving in the world – cloud computing, world-wide-web and application services, social media, remote working and learning and meeting platforms, video and music streaming, shopping, travel, health and medical research – everything runs from a server in a data centre somewhere. While that is exciting, it is also a huge responsibility and challenge for the data centre providers to keep it safe, secure and available. 

How does increased demand for sustainability impact your own innovation strategy?

While a laser focus on sustainability is absolutely key to the future of the data centre industry, it is not new. For a long time, we have recognised the need to produce more efficient data centres with lower and lower Power Use Effectiveness (PUE) and Water Use Effectiveness (WUE) designs to ensure we deliver the right service to our customers, at the right cost. The by-product has been a more sustainable outcome for the industry.

We continue to innovate but also to broaden our view of the data centre with regards to sustainability, from the carbon impact of the physical construction of the buildings, right through to how we use natural resources such as rainwater harvesting, aquifers to access natural water resources, and even living walls on the exterior of our data centres.

How does VIRTUS ensure the safety, security and availability of its data centres?

We start with our VIRTUS values and culture, which comes from the top. Safety is my number one concern, closely followed by the security and availability of my customers’ services and data. That culture permeates through our management team to the hundreds of people involved in the day-to-day operations of our data centres. We employ teams of safety specialists to constantly monitor standards. Security is all about minimising threats and being alert, and zero downtime is about good design, quality build, testing and zero errors in process. As with security, keeping control of who gets in and out, who is doing what and ensuring 100% uptime is constantly reviewed, all of which leads to maintaining our top levels of security.

VIRTUS operates a ‘Defence in Depth’ topology, with multiple layers of protection in place between the site perimeter, critical services and customer equipment. This is typically in the form of secure fence lines, intruder detection, fully programmable and auditable Electronic Access Control Systems (EACS) including biometrics and full CCTV coverage. All of this is controlled and monitored by fully vetted, on-site Security Teams 24×7 who are always on-hand to provide immediate response.

When it comes to who can get in and out of a facility, to achieve the gold standard, there should be seven layers of physical security: a physical barrier, trembler wire, surveillance cameras, 24/7 security guards, vehicle trap, full authentication & access policy control and biometrics. We are fortunate that in London we are not usually at risk from extreme weather events, but are always prepared with a robust Emergency Response Plan in operation at all sites, which is regularly reviewed to ensure any new potential risks are identified and mitigated.

What will the data centre of the future look like?

Market demand has been growing year on year and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future as more and more devices connect to the Internet and more data than ever is produced. We spend a great deal of time and investment on research and development of every aspect of our solutions – from cooling systems to distribution, to security, to monitoring. Trends like immersion cooling, backup power solutions, battery technology, gas or water turbines, Bio fuel sources and generation solutions are all interesting areas for the future. A key concern for all businesses is sustainability and we continue to look at what our industry can really do to help to mitigate climate change.

Looking ahead, what do the next few years have in store for VIRTUS and how do you plan to grow the brand?

At VIRTUS, our aim is to lead the data centre industry in Europe. We bring a new generation of fresh thinking. We are a ‘customer first’ data centre operator, renowned for providing new intelligent data centre services that are agile, connected and efficient. We deliver outstanding customer propositions based on world-class quality, flexibility, service and value, enabling customers to grow and transform their businesses more easily and more cost-effectively. Ease of doing business and commercial flexibility is critical to success. It is very difficult to predict what technology and industry changes will happen in 12 months – let alone five years – so having a flexible relationship based on shared success and a true partnership is key.  

We are in the early stages of a global digital and data transformation, with data centres and networks at its core. More and more, increasingly sophisticated everyday tasks will be carried out by computers using AI, without human intervention. In the last 30 years I have seen several waves of computing from mainframes, to mid-range, client server, web, managed hosting and now SaaS and public cloud. In the last 10 years the data centre boom in places like London and North Virginia has seen the first GW data centre markets created. London has doubled every five years. I think in the next 10 years this will happen in more of the large urban areas of the world; areas with populations of a few million people, of which there are hundreds globally. Maybe they will all have a 100MW data centre infrastructure, hopefully with the VIRTUS brand in these new markets.

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