The global digital infrastructure industry is evolving. From Silicon Valley to Nairobi, the growing demand for interconnection and data centre services is simultaneously pushing the industry in two independent directions. “In the market right now, it’s obvious to me that there are the two main asset classes: the hyperscale facilities and the decentralised edge. Traditional colocation assets are also a part of the market, but the sector is definitely in decline,” explains Jon Eaves, the founder and CEO of Edge Centres. Eaves, who has spent the last two decades building data centres and web hosting services throughout Australia and the Middle East, recently turned his attention to that second group of assets: data centres at the decentralised edge. “Rather than go into the hyperscale market, which is very heavily populated in Australia - Sydney alone has more than 267 data centre facilities, which is epic - we’re looking at the edge,” he says.
Eaves’ new company, Edge Centres, launched earlier this year, and is currently on the cusp of a sizable rollout across Australia. They’re hoping to capitalise, Eaves explains, on what he calls the “edge wave”, an imminent boom of regional digital infrastructure set to transform connectivity in the country forever. In the process, through adversity thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic, regulatory restrictions, and available technology, Eaves and his team have hit upon some truly unique solutions. These discoveries stand to make Edge Centres’ modular, solar-powered, battery-first, “off-grid” facilities a key part of Australia’s future at the edge.
Building at the Edge
“Moving away from normal third-party colocation towards the edge was a strategic move. At the moment, I would still say that Australia is a year to 18 months away from the IoT and edge wave arriving,” Eaves says. “The towns where I'm building Edge Centres' facilities have never had a data centre in their entire histories. These are areas that have never had access to smart telecommunications. In the Wild West, the towns that had railroads pass through them were the first to progress and grow, and it's much the same in regional Australia with data centre infrastructure.”
Edge Centres’ test case for a regional data centre site is located in Grafton, a city of fewer than 20,000 in the northern part of New South Wales. “It's the largest National Broadband Network (NBN) interconnection point in the whole of Australia,” explains Eaves. “Australia's broadband network is decentralised across 127 points that the NBN connects to, and Grafton is the largest one with 145,000 premises connected to it.”
Grafton has been a critical proving ground for Edge Centres’ first facility, soon to be the template for another 19 throughout Australia set to “connect Cairns in the far North of the country with Melbourne in the South,” Eaves explains. “We're creating a new North-to-South network that currently doesn't exist point to point.”
Right now, the Australian NBN links hundreds of smaller regional hubs like Grafton with the country’s major metropolises like Sydney, Melbourne, and Bisbane (where Edge Centres is based). “We call it the great Australian trombone,” says Eaves. “If you send an email from one company to another in Grafton, that email boomerangs all the way to Sydney and back, like a trombone.”
All the data created and consumed in Grafton (as well as other small towns where Edge Centres has purchased land, including Dubbo, Toowoomba, Mackay, and Hobart) from emails to Netflix shows has to negotiate the country’s highly centralised network. In other countries, centralised hyperscale data centres serving the entire network isn’t so much of an issue, because the entire country might fit within a single latency zone. In Australia, where populations are massively focused around coastal cities, and getting from Sydney in the East to Perth in the West takes 42 hours by car or six on a plane, latency is more of an issue. “All the Netflix in Australia is consumed from Sydney,” Eaves elaborates. “That means that, if you're in Western Australia - which is six hours by plane away from Sydney - your video is still streaming out of Sydney.”
The result is national digital infrastructure that is woefully unprepared for the impact of Industry 4.0, 5G, and the age of the Internet of Things (IoT). In 2019’s global internet index rankings, conducted by Speedtest, Australian internet ranked 68th in the world, a full four places behind Kazakhstan. However, Eaves explains, regional edge infrastructure will be the vital step towards bringing data “as close as possible to eyes on glass,” adding that “As these edge facilities start coming online, the service providers that currently can't get a foothold in regional areas - because the facilities themselves don't exist - are going to be able to expand.”
However, rolling out 20 edge data centres across regional Australia and beyond isn’t a straightforward undertaking by any measure, and the process got a lot harder in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In overcoming these challenges, however, Eaves explains that Edge Centres hit upon something truly revolutionary.
One of the things that Eaves is most emphatic about is just how effective solar power can be at the edge. IT equipment in facilities at the edge is a lot less dense than “in a traditional hyperscaler.” Rather than facility load being measured in megawatts, a modular edge container, like the ones being built by Edge Centres, have densities in the realm of 100-300 kilowatts. “That means that the traditional ways of cooling and powering those facilities can be disrupted to suit our requirements, which is what led us to solar,” Eaves explains.
Solar power, he continues, “wasn’t our original play,” but rather an invention born of necessity, as the saying goes. When Edge Centres acquired its land in Grafton, the greenfield site had never been connected to the national grid before and, when Eaves applied for utility power, his plans bumped up against a six month waiting period. “Six months is just the way it is; those are the rules for everyone,” he reflects stoically. A six month waiting period isn’t a huge problem if you’re a hyperscaler (or even a traditional colocation company) that can only spin up one to two large data centres a year. Eaves’ rollout plan for Edge Centres involves bringing a new batch of multiple data centres online every four months. “If you can only drop one site every six months, even if you build them concurrently, you're going to end up way behind,” he explains. “So, we started looking at solar as an alternative way of powering these facilities.”
Edge Centres began exploring the possibility of running an edge data centre site using solar panels with a backup generator and no connection to the grid (at least at first). “It came to the point where we calculated that we could probably run our sites completely off-grid,” he recalls.
When Eaves and I spoke, the Grafton data centre had been running on exclusively solar power for just over three months with no connection to the national grid. “We're now at 93 days today - not that I'm counting - of being 100% solar powered. At the moment, the site has a backup generator, which we haven't needed to run, and no utility feeds,” says Eaves.
Pushing the Boundaries of Power and Cooling
A huge part of what makes Edge Centres’ sites function independently from both the grid and (so far) their own UPS generators is the innovative approach that Eaves has taken to powering and cooling his facilities. Again, Eaves reflects that the challenges of the past year were a pivotal source of innovation. “We've actually developed our own air conditioners which sit differently to the units you can buy off the shelf. The problem with the off the shelf units is that, because of the pandemic, the world has a shortage of containers, which makes trying to get things delivered a challenge,” he recalls.
“My first container full of cabinets was moved off a ship because another customer was paying more. I've had critical components delayed by two weeks because people are paying more for priority. What used to be about a $2,000 price tag to get a container from the US or China to Australia is, as of this morning, $6,600 - we're more than three times the pre-pandemic shipping cost of a shipping container. Then, in Melbourne, I've also got three containers waiting on the dock to be X-Rayed, and they've been there since the sixth of June, three weeks ago.”
As a result, the Grafton site is pulled together from locally available modified components.
Partnering for Success: Stulz
When delivering on hyper specialised design objectives in an industry where off-the-rack just won’t cut it, developing key partnerships is essential. “Because the edge is so different to a standard bricks-and-mortar colocation facility, a lot of things change when it comes to the design process,” says Eaves. “When we started out and looked at the kinds of off the shelf technology that was available, we saw that a lot of it wasn't fit for purpose. It was functional, but didn't give us the ability to increase our efficiency as much as we wanted, or to do free cooling.”
In order to be able to build its edge data centres the way they need to be built, Edge Centres has partnered with climate control specialists, Stulz. “We went to Stulz, who I'd had a great relationship with in the past, and we figured out a way for them to modify their standard units to make them fit for our purposes. The units we use from Stulz are custom-made just for our facilities,” says Eaves. Following that success, Stulz has also played a role in outfitting Edge Centres with dedicated UPS, as well as hot aisle containment equipment.
Normally, when you power a data centre, you run your electricity from your centralised power source to a mechanical and electrical board to be distributed where it’s needed. “What we've done with the air conditioners is split the power, so we have AC and DC units. So, because we're using purely DC from solar, we tap into that and run both the fans and electronics directly from the DC without inverters. We only use AC to run the compressor as and when required, so it's a lot more efficient,” Eaves explains. “Then, on the electrical side for the IT load, rather than having a centralised UPS, we run the power straight to a board, which means that each customer has its own dedicated UPS - which are made specially for us and procured by Stulz.”
Edge Centres builds its facilities inside non-standardised containers, which allow for extra space and hot-aisle/cold-aisle containment. Power is housed in a separate container on site, with two power packs per site - an A and a B feed that are completely separated from the data centre itself. Those individual units carry the batteries, the inverters, and the main board. Each inverter (of which there are five pairs) has its own bank of solar panels in place of a utility power connection. The pairs can be reconfigured on the fly allowing for different combinations that creates an impressive level of redundancy. “You need to lose two completely independent solar banks to lose power. By using solar power, our sites are actually more redundant in terms of power than a typical data centre,” says Eaves. “You need to lose two completely separate, paralleled inverter banks, and your batteries, in order for you to lose your load and have an outage.”
Solar, Eaves reflects, has been an amazing discovery for Edge Centres, and is the key driver behind the truly staggering efficiency of the company’s sites. “Even if you have 200-300 kilowatts of live, available solar - which we have - if you only need 30 kilowatts because you're a low-loaded new site, all the panels generate is 30 kilowatts. It only generates what it needs. Our PUE is incredibly low as a result,” Eaves explains. “Our operational PUE is 1.04 because we're only creating exactly what we require.”
In order to ensure constant power generation throughout the day, Eaves has positioned his solar banks in pairs, facing East and West (the industry standard is to face North or South, so that each panel gets some sun throughout the whole day). “When the sun comes up in the morning, the East panels get full sun with a little going to the West panels, and then we get the inverse in the afternoon,” says Eaves. By using a technique called solar clipping, each pair of panels runs into a single inverter through a multi-point power tracker. “You can double your bank's capacity from multiple panels, but the inverter only ever receives 30 kilowatts. Rather than having a solar power generation curve throughout the day, we can feed the East and West-facing panels into the inverter to generate the full 30 kilowatts from daybreak until sunset,” says Eaves.
In case of a prolonged spell of bad weather, the hyper-efficient lithium-ion phosphate batteries that Edge Centres has selected are capable of running the site for a full 24 hours before the generator needs to kick in. “A battery-first facility that loses solar for whatever reason is really resilient,” says Eaves. “If you lose power from the solar array, your generator or utility connection only needs to run for an hour in order to fully charge our batteries, which can then run the site for 24 hours before the backup power needs to be switched on again.”
The Future of the Edge
When it comes to the future of data centres at the edge, even the sky doesn’t pose a limit for Eaves, who launched a modular data centre into space earlier this year. As far as I can tell, he did it because he thought it would be cool, and he’s not wrong. “As part of our branding and our launch, we sent the EC1X modular data centre into space. It was up there for an hour and a half and then it came home,” he says, suggestively glancing behind him at the piece of equipment in question, which had been sitting on a table in his office the entire time we were talking.
For the next year and a half, however, Eaves has his eyes fixed squarely on terra firma. “For the next 18 months, Edge Centres is going to be building out its facilities - in Australia as well as in Japan - that we've already acquired the locations for,” he explains. “We can have four modular facilities under construction simultaneously. We can have four civil works under construction simultaneously. Then the units can be fully tested in the factory over the course of a week, and when they get to the sites the solar has already been laid, which means that we can plug the solar panels into the containers and be live within a month.”
This ambitious rollout will see Edge Centres launch four sites in October, another four in March, and four in August of next year. He adds that “We've also secured land in Japan about 40 minutes north of Tokyo, and our first edge data centre, ECJ1, which will become our showcase for the Japanese market in October.” The expansion into Japan, he continues, is about more than just breaking into new markets. “If you want to put solar powered modular data centres all over the world, you not only want to be able to test them in different climates, but also different environments - and Japan is obviously very seismic,” Eaves explains. The units that Edge Centres has got going into Japan are specially modified with bases that allow for seismic disruption up to a 7.0 on the Earthquake Magnitude Scale. Eaves says they’re also looking at the Philippines and Vietnam for future projects, but admits that ongoing pandemic travel restrictions “are slowing things down on that front.”
Expansion throughout APAC and beyond is likely on the cards for Edge Centres in the near future though as the modular data centre industry - and the edge itself - continues to evolve. “Traditionally, when you build a data centre, there are two things that are absolute necessities. The first is power from local utilities and the second is a fibre connection to other facilities around you,” says Eaves. “Now, if you have a solar powered, off-grid edge data centre like us, you can remove the first dependency on utility power, and then by partnering with a satellite company, you can remove the need for fibre interconnection to a network. Suddenly, the two most critical requirements for your business are now almost the least consequential.”
Given the successful trials by satellite internet companies like Starlink and OneWeb over the past year, Eaves paints a picture of a world where the growth of the edge is no longer long, slow creep of fibre networks expand from central metro areas, but rather an “internet for anyone and everyone,” where “if you look at not just rural Australia but locations all over the world - isolated communities in Africa or Southeast Asia, for example - suddenly you can put down a data centre - an internet pod - that can serve a community with content and capability just about anywhere.”