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Red electricity, server huggers, security, flood plains and flightpaths stand in the way of data centre building programmes to support the UK government's plans for Digital Britain.

That's the view of one of the UK's foremost data centre construction consultants, Derek Webster, of property and construction consultancy McBains Cooper.

"First thing: certain transport sectors have access to low-duty 'red diesel' fuel; the government needs to create 'red electricity' specifically for data centres - because up to 60% of the cost of running a data centre is power - and on a square metre for square metre basis, data centres burn up 30 times as much power as offices," said Derek Webster.

"Next major issue: Everybody's pointing at London as being the hub of support and infrastructure for Digital Britain, but the fact is that while London has some of the best internet brains in the world, London has a lot of other things going against it.

"As well as the considerations of location - data centres can't be built on flood plains or in airport flight paths - there are massive issues relating to secure power supply, anonymity and proximity to demand.

"The main issue is power, power and more power. Digital Britain will need massive data centre capacity to accommodate what the government is planning, but the average data centre uses as much power on an hour-by-hour basis as a city the size of Leicester.

"But UK electricity costs are the third most expensive in Europe, and our sustainability team is jumping up and down about how important it is to design and build in regenerative power sources such as geothermal heat pumps, wind turbines and similar technology: frankly, it is a significant challenge for the South East to meet London needs.

"What's more, data centre 'rack space' is the fourth most expensive in Europe.

"Ironically, Digital Britain may end up with its major organs being based in France, Germany, Sweden or Switzerland because of power cost and availability.

"But that leads to another issue: 'server huggers'. Traditional techies want their servers to be as close to operational headquarters as possible citing 'latency' issues: In financial trading, for instance, one millisecond advantage in trading application can be worth £50m a year to a major brokerage.

"The issue is the lack of fibre for domestic and SME broadband and data transmission. On this front, the UK is a generation behind other parts of the world. Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) is considered one of the most important means of delivering next-generation broadband to homes and business.

"But when it comes to, say, the financial services industry, a delay in movement of information or money of a millisecond can cost tens of millions of dollars, so the demand is to keep those servers close by.

"But where? London is pretty well full in terms of being able to source power. And such is the increased secrecy surrounding data centre location and construction that nobody knows for certain how many there are in the UK - so can you imagine trying to construct one in secret in London? There are also no clear guidelines for local authority planners when assessing a data centre application, and therefore room for gross misunderstanding of the function, operation and importance of such a facility.

"London is also too warm - data centres create masses of waste heat. Economics, environment, land prices and power supply all point towards the value of building data centres in cooler parts of Wales, North of England and Scotland - but the server huggers won't have it, because of equipment proximity and fibres not being fast enough for traders to fire data to and fro between business and server to maximise commercial advantage.

"But, crucially, it is unlikely to get any easier: the internet - and consequently data storage - only really started in 1989, and already we're running out of storage and data processing space to accommodate the huge growth in on-line content, services, social-networking and storage

"If the UK is to remain in the running as one of the world's top three data centre builders and managers, then better and faster fibres and a huge re-think on power supply have to happen fast.

"If the government can co-ordinate planners, utilities, real estate and digital industries, it will not only unblock the Digital Britain plans, but also lead to the UK attracting inward investment and promoting global competitiveness."

McBains Cooper has regional headquarters in London (head office), Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Oxford, Windsor, Lima (Peru) and Mexico City, with associate offices in Belfast and Dublin.


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