A recent Panorama documentary asked us to think differently about the impact of cloud. It raised a thought-provoking question about whether the term ‘the cloud’ accurately reflects the physical reality of the data centres that power it.
Lancaster University Professor Gordon Blair argued that the name creates a perception of an ethereal and untethered technology that doesn’t fully capture the tangible infrastructure that supports it. And the progression of tech giants’ commitments to providing enterprises access to sovereign cloud services has accelerated conversations around digital sovereignty.
Digital sovereignty – a country’s ability to protect and control its digital assets, including data, infrastructure, and networks – is one of the most pressing issues in the regulatory landscape. This is the ability to govern the internet within a country’s borders, safeguard its citizens’ privacy, and secure its critical infrastructure.
64.4 per cent of the total population is online, meaning digital sovereignty is a question for governments the world over. But achieving digital sovereignty is not a straightforward task as countries face geographical and climate limitations, energy security issues, and skills gaps that must be addressed if they want to embrace digital sovereignty meaningfully.
It’s imperative for governments to take a holistic approach to digital sovereignty and create policies that balance the benefits of the cloud with the need for tangible infrastructure to support it.
Resilient digital infrastructure and climate change
While cloud as a definition has an ethereal ring, it is in fact a very physical location, which can be vulnerable to geographical and climate events. Countries located in areas prone to natural disasters may face more challenges in maintaining their digital sovereignty than ones with temperate climates. Floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes can all cause damage to data centres, and with the climate crisis exacerbating these risks, it is important to ensure that backup systems are in place to ensure continued connectivity.
Ensuring that digital infrastructure is resilient to natural disasters and supported by reliable backup systems is crucial to maintaining digital sovereignty and protecting critical data. The example of severe winter storms and power outages in Texas in 2021 caused several data centres to go offline. This resulted in disruptions to critical services, including emergency communications and Covid-19 vaccine scheduling systems. These demonstrate the need for continued investment in resilient infrastructure to people are as least affected as possible.
The demand for energy to power digital infrastructure is increasing rapidly, but this can have detrimental effects on the environment and economy if not approached with caution. The digital economy is heavily reliant on energy, particularly electricity, and countries that lack a reliable and affordable energy supply face challenges in maintaining their digital infrastructure. This poses a significant risk to a country’s economy and digital sovereignty. The high energy consumption of data centres and other digital infrastructure components can have a substantial impact on a country’s energy supply and climate change goals.
Focusing on energy security
Energy security is essential for ensuring a reliable and sustainable energy supply for digital infrastructure. As digital technologies continue to advance and become more pervasive, the demand for energy to power these technologies will only increase. According to a report by the International Energy Agency, data centres alone accounted for approximately 1% of global electricity demand in 2019, and this is expected to increase to 3% by 2030.
To meet the growing energy demands of the digital economy, countries need to develop energy policies that promote energy efficiency measures, invest in renewable energy sources such as geothermal energy and solar panel, and optimise the use of existing energy infrastructure. The transition to renewable energy sources is essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impact of climate change.
Not every country will have the same economic and geopolitical access to energy security. As such, they must get creative with how they use the energy emitted by digital infrastructure to ensure they adopt reliable and affordable solutions. For example, in the UK, the energy released from tiny data centres will be used to heat public swimming pools. This type of initiative not only reduces the carbon footprint but also promotes sustainable and reliable energy sources for digital infrastructure.
Plugging the digital skills gap
The rapid pace of technological advancements has created a significant demand for digital skills across various industries. New technologies such as cloud computing, IoT and data analytics has increased the need for skilled labour in these areas. Countries without the necessary expertise in these areas may fall behind in the race to protect their citizens’ data and maintain their digital sovereignty.
Governments must take steps to address the skills gap in the digital economy by investing in education and training programmes that provide individuals with the skills needed to succeed in the digital workforce. Encouraging businesses to offer lifelong learning opportunities as well can also help close the skills gap and ensure that individuals have the necessary skills to succeed in the digital economy.
Additionally, working with partners who provide professional services and combine skills and labour needed to facilitate data migration can be an effective way to accelerate the digital sovereignty journey. By partnering with experienced service providers, governments and businesses can access the expertise and resources needed to implement secure and reliable digital infrastructure.
Achieving digital sovereignty is a complex task that requires a holistic approach to address the challenges associated with it. Governments and businesses must work together to develop a comprehensive strategy that considers the physical challenges of digital infrastructure, including cybersecurity risks, energy demands, and skills gaps. By doing so, they can create a pathway towards a secure and reliable digital infrastructure that enables innovation and growth for businesses and citizens.