Piecing the sustainable puzzle for social responsibility in the Middle East

Piecing the sustainable puzzle for social responsibility in the Middle East

Bjorn Viedge, General Manager at ALEC Data Center Solutions, focuses on global green goals and how these will affect Middle Eastern data centres regarding facility design, cooling and compliance.

Bjorn Viedge, General Manager at ALEC Data Center Solutions

Across the Middle East, digital agendas have long been seen as the necessary underpinnings of economic growth – a way to detach from historic dependencies on petrochemical trade and move forward as innovators.

Amid a series of economic visions that prioritise skilling, entrepreneurship and industry disruption, we have seen the rise of the data centre as a fulcrum of progress. According to some estimates, the Middle East data centre colocation market could grow by as much as 13.5% annually between 2020 and 2026. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is leading its regional peers in this growth. It has become one of the largest data centre hubs in the Middle East. Thanks to a sustained influx of hyperscale providers, the country is expected to see more than US$1 billion of investment by 2026 – a CAGR of just under 8% over the previous five years. In April 2022, the UAE Cabinet initiated a strategy to nurture and boost the digital economy to the extent that it will contribute 20% of gross non-oil GDP in the coming years. The plan included the establishment of a council to oversee the progress of the digital economy. This programme will serve as yet another catalyst to accelerate data centre adoption.

Digitisation vs sustainability

But the UAE is not nurturing technology in isolation. Part of the country’s vision is an embrace of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which cover everything from quality of work and social life to preservation of the environment. Research has shown the mounting environmental impact of data centres.

Demand for data centre services has driven them to get bigger, hotter and more expensive, and a peer-reviewed study by Swedish researcher, Anders Andrae, predicts the ICT industry could use 20% of all electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025. In a region that already faces a looming water crisis, Middle East data centre planners should be aware that today’s data centres use up an Olympic swimming pool every two days.

Traditional building and cooling technologies are having trouble keeping pace with increasing chip densities, so those that build their own data centres should account for this impact when looking to comply with government regulations. The recent UAE-hosted COP28 international climate conference emphasises that data centre owners must be ready to play their part. In the age of ESG, they must be climate conscious, and they must look to the latest technologies to ensure their facilities are adding net value to society.

Many such technologies exist and have proven themselves, but not all are applicable in all geographies. For example, heat-recovery may be viable in colder countries, but is not suitable for the sun-soaked Middle East. However, other efficient means are on hand to make the region’s data centres greener. If planners aim for great design, then they must consider not just the exterior – such as the location, the resources used, the climate and the temperature – but also the interior of the facility.

Inner pieces

Rethinking the design of modern data centres means leaving no component overlooked – from the building itself down to the nuts and bolts of the servers. Indeed, server-cooling technologies are improving all the time, and some older ones are making a powerful comeback.

Liquid-immersion cooling, for example, has been around since the 1940s, and with the surging demand for denser computing that we are seeing today, the technology may be the answer to many problems. Modern liquid-immersion cooling uses a dielectric (non-electrically conductive) fluid which is far more effective in conducting and therefore enabling the dissipation of heat produced by hardware, compared to traditional air-based cooling systems.

Liquid-immersion could represent the future of data centre cooling. Facilities can operate with less physical space compared with traditional air-based solutions, while gaining energy savings of up to 50%. Meanwhile, lower maintenance costs, cheaper builds and Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) scores lower than 1.03 (where 1.0 is the ideal) mean organisations can reduce the time needed to realise a full return on their investment.

Building blocks

But cooling is not the only way to sustainability. Facility planners must also consider the building process itself. Emerging recently, a rapidly gaining acceptance for data centres of smaller scale, is the technique of prefabricated construction – also known as modular data centres. As the construction of the prefabricated modules primarily occurs offsite in dedicated fabrication facilities, standardised production methodologies can be implemented which improve efficiencies, enhance quality and significantly reduce wastage.

Because prefabricated data centres have been assembled and tested in a controlled factory environment, construction is faster, less error-prone and less labour-intensive on site. Additionally, modules can be added whenever the demand arises, meaning data centre companies need not build a large facility to accommodate future expansion. Instead, they can build quickly as needed. All of this leads to a cheaper, more efficient, more sustainable projects.

Many regional governments, including that of the UAE, are firmly committed to the UN’s SDGs. Middle East authorities, and their counterparts elsewhere in Asia, the Americas and Europe, are placing greater emphasis on LEED certification and other standards in their regulatory frameworks. Nations everywhere, it seems, have recognised the importance of regulating their way to sustainability. But in playing their part, data centre owners can also take advantage of a lucrative new business model of long-term benefits – from quicker go-to-market, to reduced operational costs.

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