Starting a new data centre sector leadership role during a pandemic…



AECOM, the world’s premier infrastructure firm, has appointed David Higgins to lead its data centres sector across EMEA. David is an experienced business leader in the ICT, critical environments and energy sectors, having worked across operational, commercial and general management disciplines both in the UK and globally. He joined the firm at the end of March, just as lockdown was imposed in the UK due to coronavirus.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE STARTING YOUR NEW ROLE UNDER LOCKDOWN?
Starting a new role with a large geographic remit can be challenging at the best of times but joining during a global pandemic and its associated regional lock downs certainly added a new dimension.

AECOM was already well-connected globally, having staff familiar with working and collaborating remotely across all our geographies, but the move to full home working for all presented technological, logistical and practical challenges that to a large extent were met successfully, not only in our organisation but equally our clients and partners. In some ways it’s surprising how effective this transition was and how little productivity was lost…Albeit having only met and worked with my global colleagues and clients over virtual calls still feels a little strange.

HOW DO YOU FEEL THIS INDUSTRY HAS ADAPTED AND SUPPORTED THE WIDER ECONOMY DURING THESE TIMES?
Technology and cloud solution providers have adapted and coped well to this new norm affecting us globally, despite the surges in demand we have seen across all digital infrastructure platforms.

So much has changed this last decade in our ability to communicate, collaborate, entertain and educate utilising the digital infrastructure that our global data centres support. This has certainly made the current lockdowns more manageable and bearable for many.

It is also a testament to our industry that we have not witnessed many significant outages, which would have had an even greater profound effect. It appears a bigger threat to our data centre environments is from sustained ‘cyber attacks’ rather than physical critical infrastructure failures.

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE KEY LEARNINGS?
A key learning from my perspective is how many data centres are still heavily reliant on human intervention in some form or another. Whilst we haven’t witnessed many outages, imagine a slightly different scenario where utility and fuel supplies were impacted, and technical staff couldn’t get to key sites – that’s when we would clearly have had major impacts.

There has been a change in our industry over the course of the last few years in that resilience was not just associated with single sites built to a very high level of redundancy, but by having multiple data centre locations across multiple geographies providing this intrinsic resilience. In a pandemic, where all sites could be equally and simultaneously impacted over a potentially prolonged period, brings in to question again key design and ongoing facility support fundamentals for the future, the prime power provision source its associated back up and the monitoring and support of these facilities without key staff on site.


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DO YOU SEE CHANGES IN THE INDUSTRY GOING FORWARD?
The appetite to increase global data centre footprint and capacity seems undiminished and is understandable given the current and projected demand, which has been even more underlined through this pandemic.

With data centres one of the major power consumers globally, the big challenge, and equally opportunity as we emerge from this pandemic, is in a real step change in finding energy efficient solutions to temperature control and increasing renewable power use in new builds, while addressing this where possible in legacy data centres. These are areas in which AECOM is investing time and research to look at future solutions.

The use of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics to further enhance identification of potential faults, enabling prevention measures and improving reliability of services within facilities will have major impacts.

Edge computing and micro data centres providing lower latency are becoming an increased focus to support a multitude of technologies and data from the IoT. A good example of this work which we are involved in is with smart city transport systems across the world and the use of AI to improve real-time traffic information to reduce congestion.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU SEE AS KEY DRIVERS AND INNOVATIONS IN THE COMING YEARS?
Renewable power provision, water consumption and the operational efficiency of these facilities will be key drivers. Organisations such as Microsoft have made some ambitious targets for overall carbon reduction that will drive the industry. As advisors, designers and construction colnsultants for these facilities, AECOM is in the driving seat to meet these challenges.

Workspace design accommodates people and their needs; data centre design accommodates computerised micro processing and its associate hardware.

Real change and innovation to future design could be seen in the move beyond the bounds of current silicon based micro processing. Long standing market leaders such as Intel, AMD, NVIDIA are investing heavily in R&D here, as well as AWS and Google.

The step change could be huge in a breakthrough with quantum computing and / or in other material use in microprocessors such as graphene. The associated changes needed in the design and operation of data centres with this technology could be profound, let alone the possibilities for the future technologies and applications they could support.

So, more than ever we need to be agile and seek to recognise new inventions on the horizon, accept change, be creative and bring true innovation. This is an exciting and dynamic sector to work in and one I would recommend to all young pre and post graduate engineers to consider too.