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The real impact of AI on the data centre sector

Image: Adobe Stock / Bo Dean

Whilst predictions about the impact of AI continue to be debated, the data centre sector is already gearing up to deal with the changes it has already started to drive, writes Chris Coward, Director of Project Management at BCS. 

AI is already changing the way we design data centres, as it requires far more processing power than standard computing and so needs more power and cooling.

In simple terms, this means that data centres that are specifically designed to support AI’s high density workloads will require larger area outside plant areas to house the larger and more advanced cooling equipment. Data centre designs are also changing to ensure they can adapt to include liquid cooling to address the higher density. For existing facilities, this may mean adapting cooling solution implementations and retro fitting air cooled, direct-to-chip and or immersed solutions.   

Location – anywhere 

One real positive is that these data centres could be located in secondary locations as there are less latency concerns – the data is just processing. This could unlock building in new regions that are less ‘saturated’ by the sector; these regions may have better power availability, driving employment and prosperity to a new area of the country. Existing empty buildings that have been left empty due to poor connectivity will become a stronger option bringing about additional sustainability benefits. 

Power is even more of an issue 

There has been much debate around how to get the necessary power to support these facilities. The challenge is not so much the power, as this is a universal problem, but more one maximising the use of available power – being a little creative in our approach. Failure to find a solution may well be a limiting factor, as Amazon chief Andy Jassy warned this year that there was “not enough energy right now” to run new generative AI services. 

Discussions around a nuclear solution have been around for years but the safety and security concerns, whether founded, continue to prevent wholescale uptake. However, it should be noted that earlier this year, Microsoft appointed a director of nuclear technologies after announcing that it was recruiting to “implement a global small modular reactor and microreactor” strategy to power data centres. 

In the UK, the national grid is hindered by not just a lack of availability in certain areas but also by crippling bureaucracy preventing change. Certainly, in the UK there is a move towards making power reservations expire unless progress is seen. This may see the end of sandbagging where in some cases the power reserve is worth more than the site! Moving forward, the solution may well be to bypass the grid by building microgrids, where possible using renewable energy. 

Engagement and education 

Over the past few years, the planning authorities have become more educated about data centres which has eased the process and time frames a little. However, now the industry will need to start engaging with them again to educate them as to why the designs and requirements have changed.

This won’t happen overnight and as this unprecedented demand continues lead-times may start to affect the ‘speed’ of deployment as the sector struggles with this lack of awareness and both physical and human resources. Early engagement with the community and planning teams is therefore key as is the education message to the market. 

A positive for the community 

Another positive impact of the rapid development and uptake of AI is this increased density enables a higher grade of heat for export to district heating networks, electrified buildings and community services such as swimming pools. In addition, if we can decentralise to spread the power, heat, and benefit across a larger geographic area this would help to make our industry more sustainable. 

There is no doubt that AI adds another complex layer to what is already a complex industry which could result in making it hard to build any flexibility into plans. We are therefore advising clients to get the design agreed and nailed down earlier and really spend time assessing their wider needs, those of potential customers not to mention to wider community aspect. 

Picture of Chris Coward
Chris Coward
Director of Project Management at BCS

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