10 Aug 2022

Anonymity or Visibility? A growing dilemma for today’s data centres

Data centres have historically hidden in plain sight, not wanting to draw attention to themselves to assure privacy and security for their customers. Their non-descript ‘warehouses’ and ‘hangers’ have typically been built in remote locations, or discretely tucked away on large trading estates formerly occupied by heavy industry to maintain a low profile and to try and avoid appearing on “Google Earth”.

Today there are more than seven million data centres globally that handle the data of both SMEs and enterprise-scale operations, with over 150 of them in London and neighbouring Slough, including our latest facility on Slough Trading Estate. Data centres are crucial to every aspect of our business and social lives, yet most of us have no idea about where these facilities are located and we can walk past them without even noticing. It’s only when you see the banks of generators outside, or maybe the HVAC units you’ll twig that a data centre is lurking inside.

The notion of “security through obscurity”, however, is increasingly being questioned in a digital world because very little now escapes a search engine’s glare and physical locations are becoming increasingly irrelevant as cybercrime poses the greatest concern. That said the visibility of data centres remains an issue for certain industries, particularly if they handle classified information, operate in highly regulated markets, or perceive themselves or their brand to be vulnerable to a physical attack.

Although the data centre industry has been expanding steadily since the millennium, it has undergone explosive growth over the last five years. The number of facilities operated by big tech firms has almost doubled since 2016, with many of them being newbuilds. Moreover, data handling is increasingly moving off-prem and into industrial scale colocation centres (like Kao Data) or to the “edge” for performance and latency reasons, and even un-manned mini data centre outposts, are mushrooming in highly populated areas, fuelled by the increasing ability to pack high density hardware into smaller and more compact shells that are liquid cooled.

Inevitably, as the critical role of data centres accelerates, so too does public and media awareness and this is subsequently driving demand for greater visibility and transparency. There have been numerous high-profile cloud and internet debacles - the Facebook outage of 2021, when all its social platforms were globally unavailable for several hours, and CNN’s headline story claiming that Ireland’s data centres are destroying the planet, being just a couple of examples.

The increasing need for sustainable operations is also pushing the industry towards greater transparency and visibility into where data centres are located and how they operate. Data centre energy usage is under constant scrutiny and the industry needs to openly demonstrate that it is transitioning from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources.

Uniquely at Kao Data we operate probably one of the most easily recognisable data centres in the industry with our famous green fins across the side of our Harlow based KLON-01 facility. Ironically those were built into the design to help the building blend into the nearby countryside, but they have now become integral to our brand and industry awareness as our logo testifies.

The Catch 22 situation of anonymity versus visibility is only going to get more pronounced as data centres continue to expand, they become more common infrastructures within our communities and the public scrutiny intensifies. It will be interesting to see how this issue evolves as data centres become even more integral to our everyday lives.

Faisal Akram

Faisal Akram is responsible for Business Development at Kao Data and works closely with the wider sales and marketing team in recruiting new logos into the data centre. He has a keen focus in the life science, Pharma and AI sectors and has been involved in over 75MW of IT-related projects across EMEA


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