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Solidifying data centres' vital role in the digital economy

Nurdianah Md Nur
Nurdianah Md Nur • 5 min read
Solidifying data centres' vital role in the digital economy
Data centres serve as the unsung heroes of the digital age, particularly in their crucial role of supporting enterprise AI adoption and sustainability objectives. Photo: Pexels
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Data centres, often overlooked, form the backbone of the digital economy, powering essential activities like e-commerce and facilitating trends such as smart cities. As organisations in the Asia Pacific region advance their digital transformation, how can data centre providers continue effectively supporting them?

Governments globally are encouraging the adoption of AI technology, resulting in a significant increase in its use. Singapore’s government, for example, intends to invest more than $1 billion in AI computing, talent development, and industry expansion over the next five years. This investment supports the National AI Strategy (NAIS), updated in December 2023, highlighting a dedicated push to promote AI innovation and integration within the nation.

The updated NAIS 2.0 emphasises the development of a reliable and ethical AI environment, aiming to spur innovation and economic growth while empowering individuals and businesses in Singapore to understand and use AI effectively.

AI-ready infrastructure

Data centre providers can help accelerate enterprise AI adoption by offering an AI-ready infrastructure.

“Guided by national AI strategies and with AI innovations transitioning from research and development (R&D) laboratories to commercial applications, ensuring the availability of AI-ready digital infrastructure becomes imperative in 2024 and beyond. With prudent and timely investment in AI-ready infrastructure, businesses can get a headstart in ensuring reliable and scalable access to AI-enhanced products and services,” says Lionel Yeo, CEO for Southeast Asia at STT GDC.

See also: Singtel-KKR a frontrunner to take a minority stake of US$1 bil in STT GDC, according to Reuters

Chris Sharp, chief technology officer of Digital Realty, agrees. He says: “The rise of AI deployments has led to a significant shift in the requirements of data centres, which will need appropriate designs in place to meet this new customer demand. Where a data centre operator may have been able to plan on an average of 10 kW power draw per rack of customer equipment in the past, the need for increasingly large blocks of 25 kW, 50 kW or even 100 kW racks at different places across that same data centre facility is here and will only continue to grow.”

He continues: “Modular designs will be the difference between being able to support current and future generations of AI deployments in existing sites and needing to build. Data centre operators with modularity built into their architecture will be better equipped to assist customers in ensuring that AI deployments, even at high rack densities, can be supported in a highly effective, robust and cost-efficient manner within an existing data centre facility.”

Invest in sustainable solutions

See also: Empowering organisations to further their decarbonisation journeys with data

Acknowledging that the growth of the digital economy shouldn’t compromise sustainability, data centre providers are increasingly exploring or implementing sustainable technologies.

Liquid cooling is among the sustainable technologies that are gaining traction with data centre operators. “To keep pace with the adoption of AI and high-performance computing (HPC) applications, data centres must rethink their approach to cooling systems to enable higher efficiency, greater rack density and improved cooling performance. With liquid cooling, data centres can transfer heat more efficiently than air. Gartner claims that liquid conducts morethan 3,000 times as much heat as air and requires less energy, allowing increased data centre densities,” says Jeremy Deutsch, president for Asia Pacific at Equinix.

He continues: “Combining and selecting from various cooling techniques, such as augmented air cooling, immersion cooling and direct-to-chip liquid cooling, will help data centre facilities support in-demand business solutions like AI and HPC to be deployed across diverse industries.”

In addition to liquid cooling, data centre operators are exploring low-carbon energy sources. For example, STT GDC has initiated a hydrogen project, collaborating across various fronts. This includes championing hydrogen fuel-cell-powered data centres with Bloom Energy and SK Ecoplant. STT GDC is also conducting separate studies, in collaboration with Linde Gas and YTL Power Seraya, to explore gas turbine re-fuelling.

“These efforts aim to facilitate the deployment of clean hydrogen energy within our Singapore data centres. This initiative is part of a larger governmental strategy to integrate low-carbon hydrogen into the national grid. Through partnerships and meticulous planning, we are pioneering a viable, safe hydrogen supply chain to foster a clean energy solution, not just for our data centres but also in contribution towards Singapore’s national energy grid,” says Yeo.

He adds that 52% of his company’s operational footprint is now powered by carbon-free renewable energy.

“To achieve carbon-neutral operations in our data centres by 2030, STT GDC’s R&D team (based in our Singapore headquarters) has been actively sourcing and testing emerging technologies that impact the entire lifecycle of the data centre, from energy sourcing and construction through its operational lifespan,” says Yeo.

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As part of this initiative, STT GDC conducted a feasibility study in 2022 on using carbon dioxide (CO2) mineralised concrete in data centre construction, a process where CO2 is captured and stored in concrete during casting.

“Once injected, CO2 undergoes a mineralisation process and becomes permanently embedded, removing it from the atmosphere. This innovative approach addresses the sustainability aspect of our infrastructure and contributes towards mitigating carbon emissions,” adds Yeo.

Optimise operations

As data centres grow to answer the increasing demand for digital infrastructure, managing and maintaining large-scale data centre environments will become more complex.

“Automation and AI can help data centre operators better manage their infrastructure, reduce operational costs and improve the overall reliability and availability of their services by enabling proactive maintenance and troubleshooting,” says Yeo.

Echoing the same sentiment, Digital Realty’s Sharp adds: “AI and 3D visualisations [can help data centre providers] identify airflow and cooling inefficiencies in their facilities. AI tools can also be used to improve environmental, social and governance reporting, allowing better analysis of large data sets on the industry’s emissions footprint and energy and water usage so that effective actions can be taken.”

For example, Equinix’s data centres in Hong Kong are using AI to optimise temperature ranges within chiller units for peak efficiency, setting new industry benchmarks for cooling efficiency.

Digital infrastructure is crucial for businesses to gain a competitive edge and thrive in the digital economy. Data centres must continue evolving to pave the way for a future where businesses can operate with greater efficiency, innovation and sustainability.

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