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Data centres become carbon tax scare-story

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Age shall weary them

Another consideration is the age of Australia’s data centre stock. Here again, perceptions are skewed by the media attention given to new data centres, and we forget just how many of today’s data centres are retrofitted mainframe rooms from the 1960s and 1970s.

Until the last few years, there wasn’t much reason to retrofit such facilities for energy efficiency: the presence of big power feeds, proximity to carrier fibre, and existing air-conditioning ducts made a given site attractive, because a retiring mainframe room made a cheap, quick – and dirty – site to run up a new data centre.

I’m not aware of any inventory of data centre stock by age, but I would not be surprised to hear that half of today’s data centres are in facilities more than 20 years old, and have inherited inefficient power and cooling designs.

Those data centres also have a lot to lose: retrofitting an existing building is much more expensive than designing efficiency into a new one, especially if nobody really gave thought to cooling or power consumption in the original design.

Even that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Another common characteristic of many of the country’s older data centres is a CBD location (not all; I’m well aware of the exceptions). In CBDs, data centres are already a problem: the next person to try and host a new data centre in the centre of Sydney will find it much harder to get multiple power feeds than was the case ten years ago.

CBD locations also suffer from high real estate costs compared to outer suburban industrial parks, and various other engineering issues.

Historically, telecommunications networks and staffing demands were the twin attractors of data centres to inner-city locations: that’s where you could get the fibre connection; and a CBD was the hub of public transport for all those staff you needed to run a mainframe room.

Both of these have long lost their relevance: there’s much more suburban fibre than there was 15 years ago, and data centres have far lower on-site staff needs than they used to.

On the whole, it seems more likely to me that a new, energy-efficient and well-connected data centre somewhere in Australia will be a far more attractive proposition than a move offshore. It’s quite likely that the cost of a data audit to try and distinguish what can and cannot be moved offshore will be far more daunting for a large enterprise than whatever incremental cost the carbon tax brings to the data centre. ®

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