Living the online pandemic




Been anywhere nice recently? Well, no, of course you haven’t. Nor have any of us. That’s the whole point. The Coronavirus lockdown has been the most significant shift in our lifestyles across the world since the end of World War 2 in 1945 – long before most of us were born. And, just as people emerged from that terrible war with a determination that things would be different in future, we should make no mistake: the data centre industry should recognise the role it has to play in the post-Covid world. Because, what have we all been doing?

Some of us are lucky enough to have been working from home (have you noticed how hard it is to get webcams and flat screens on Amazon since the lockdown started?). Many of us have been looking after children whose schools are closed.

All of us have been finding new ways to feed and entertain them. And retired people? Banned from visits from children or grandchildren, they are taking to Facetime, Skype, Facebook’s Portal or WhatsApp like never before. All of these – you’ll have seen where my argument is going – rely on our industry. And, since 31 December 2019, when Wuhan acknowledged the first known death from Coronavirus, the data centre industry is more mportant to our lives than ever before. Even if most people don’t know it. China, as you’ll read from our interview in this issue with Qingyuan Li, CFO of Chayora, is emerging first from the pandemic, just as some other countries’ death tolls are still rising.

There, she says, the government was first to recognise the importance of online… well, online everything, from e-commerce to e-gaming, as well as all the communications between business colleagues and family members. The pandemic has brought online services to people’s attention more than ever before: I know an 80-year-old who runs an online community group and she despairs of a younger member who refuses to use email, insisting that his wife print it all out.

Family celebrations – births and birthdays, for instance – are being celebrated over Skype, sometimes with food. One evening in March I interviewed a French executive via Zoom; we both had glasses of red wine and clinked our webcams to say “cheers”.

A friend who is also a journalist, and works for a legal publication, has just been following a court hearing by Skype: just two months ago he’d have been prosecuted for contempt of court if he’d dared to switch on a mobile in an English courtroom.

Even better, he could watch the hearing from his garden. And, sadly, there have been hundreds, thousands of funerals that have been live streamed to family mourners who cannot attend because of the lockdown. But, doesn’t all this use lots of energy, I hear you ask. Actually, as you’re in the industry, you’re not asking yourselves, but you all know people who are saying that data centres need huge, unsustainable amounts of power to keep going, to store and back up all our data ake this set of statistics that I’ve just seen.

According to Bruegel, a think tank based in Brussels with an EU-wide focus, Covid-19 seems to be good for energy conservation. It’s not just that we’re not flying, not driving, not taking trains anywhere, but we actually used less electricity in March and early April 2020 than in the same period in 2019.

By the start of April, Italy was using 26% less electricity than in the same week in 2019, Spain 21% less, France 20% and the UK 15%. And that, remember, is with all those people locked away in their homes, watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, as well as Disney+ with their children, meanwhile driving Skype, Microsoft Teams and Zoom like they’d never been driven before, and feeding themselves via Deliveroo and Uber Eats. The data centres have all been working hard to keep us going.

Yet still, our electricity consumption is down. As the Chayora CFO says in her interview, we can expect that, following the pandemic and after this nightmare is over, the world will take a very different attitude to all the communications infrastructure that data centres and telecoms companies provide. They’re not just a fad, they’re not just a plaything.

They’re as essential to life in the twenty-first century as clean water, sewers, electricity and efficient transport. Take that, data centre industry, and be confident in your role as this horrible year continues to unfold. Be proud of your achievements.