The electricity conundrum

The Hornsdale Tesla battery array

One of the obvious trends that has been playing out across the global digitisation upswing is the demise of the on-premise data centre. This push to migrate workloads is a sound economic model for business customers whose expertise is in running a business not tech apps or infrastructure.

Google have recently recognised the need for a bare metal service, for applications that are bespoke, complex and perhaps database centric, that do not shoehorn into standardised cloud service patterns. This service is contiguous with the Google Cloud Platform (GCP), so very low latency for workload integration between the bare metal and IaaS, Paas and SaaS.

This is very smart and removes many impediments to a ‘lift and shift’ strategy for complex legacy applications, while opening the door to GCP.

While placing data centres on Australian soil is not new, for example Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM all have well established data centres in Sydney, in another smart move towards ‘cloudification’ of the IT landscape itNews reported that a new Airtrunk data centre in Sydney, SYD2, has been commissioned in ‘glitzy’ Lane Cove on a 4 hectare lot at a cost of $1B AUD.

Yes. 40000 m 2of waterfront land in Lane Cove, which is 11 kms from the Sydney CBD. Quite staggering.

This level of investment in an Australian off-premise ‘hyper-scale’ data centre by a non west coast 5 conglomerate is quite interesting on two fronts:

  1. That the choice of racks and servers instead of people happened in a land constrained city whose realestate is amongst the most unaffordable in the world; and
  2. Reporting data centre size in megawatts of consumption means electricity supply is key to the future of digitisation.

1. Data not People

Airtrunk’s mantra is that “AirTrunk builds efficient, secure and flexible homes for your valuable data.”, however the 40000m2 of land was subject to a failed rezoning petition by developers who would have provided 900 units, or housing for approximately ~2000+ new residents.

One sound reason which makes sense is that SaaS applications, like the internet and electricity, have become an always on utility, expected to remain on. Social media, ecommerce, logistics tracking, core banking, switch networks, payment networks, MMOG, dating sites, the list goes on. This digital life that envelops us requires always on infrastructure that is reliable with scale.

The proximity of SYD2 (and SYD1 for that matter) to the Sydney CBD is interesting. While for the consumer, the technological feat of realtime telecommunications connecting across the globe, like the internet in totality, of shifting workloads across elastic compute zones, for highly performant response times is invisible, it’s based on serious infrastructure.

One such key infrastructure is the submarine cables which are maintained by a consortium of global telecommunication providers. In to and out of Australia we have a dozen active connections:

  • AJC — Australia to Japan via Guam 12700kms
  • APCN — Asia Pacific Cable Network
  • APNG2 — Papua New Guinea to Australia
  • Australia Singapore Cable
  • Australia West Express (planned) — Perth — Diego Garcia — Djibouti
  • Gondwana-1 — (New Caledonia, Australia)
  • Hawaiki — (New Zealand, Australia, American Samoa, Hawaii, Pacific City) — under construction
  • INDIGO-West (Australia-Indonesia-Singapore)
  • PPC-1 — (Pipe Pacific Cable)(Australia, Papua New Guinea, Guam), 6900kms
  • Southern Cross — (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, United States) 12 Tb/s
  • TASMAN 2 — (Australia-New Zealand)
  • TGA (Tasman Global Access) — (Australia-New Zealand) 2288 kms 20 Tb/s

Obviously the nature of TCP/IP means multiple redundant routing paths to the code and data services, but the absolute key to performant applications is low latency microservice calls that provide a instantaneous user experience.

Apart from running the submarine cables on which global inter networking connectivity relies, data centres themselves are big business. For example, the US terrestrial connection for the Southern Cross cable lands into a CoreSite data centre. CoreSite earned 544 Million USD in revenue in 2018, with a 106 million net income making a very healthy 19.11% profit margin.

When Airtrunk convinced their investors that spending $1B on hosting data in proximity to Sydney’s 5 Million residents and tens of thousands of businesses, this is fundamentally based on providing a low latency utility service to a major population hub, with the certainty of a strong future in off-premise cloud computing.

When embarking on a cloud adoption strategy, and this is why Google’s bare metal move is smart, you are typically on a PaaS or SaaS journey. Everything is bundled. And while GCP will allow a degree of openness such that you can migrate the apps and data to another cloud provider, like any change in technology, budget, project execution and risk of disruption is involved.

The other reason Airtrunk may be attractive is that they are independent of the west coast 5, and competition must be good, because as cloud infrastructure becomes more like electricity, always on, always available, these hyperscale data centres need to be colocated to major populations centres for low latency, enabling positive digital experiences.

2. Megawatts is key

The SYD2 data centre has a capacity to consume ~130MW with a highly efficient 1.15 PUE that means they will only waste 15% of electricity input.

It used to be that server capacity was indicated by number and class of processors and memory and disk. With Moore’s law in full flight and on demand elastic store and compute now here, the measure of size is now how much electricity that the server farms can consume, at full capacity.

As we reported previously, the only recent revenue DeepMind made was from selling ML code that optimises data centre cooling systems to their parent Alphabet for £37M. Efficient energy use is a big deal, not only for sustainability objectives, but especially in Australia, where we have a problem with electricity supply.

Australia is a geographically dispersed land, and a climatically challenged one. Current record drought levels, bushfires affecting 1 million acres or more, and wide distances with a globally small population (28 million) make paying for large infrastructure projects problematic. If we can use electricity efficiently, there will be more to go around.

Elon Musk’s famous response to Atlasssian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes resulted in the 100MW South Australia Hornsdale power reserve being a reality, in 100 days no less.

The Hornsdale Tesla facility is now being upgraded from 100 to 150MW, with $23M government funding by French company Neoen, the source of the electricity input being wind turbine generators, which, while not applicable in many geographies, work in parts of South Australia, and Victoria, for example Aarat and Stawell.

While we have previously been critical of Tesla3’s self drive feature as it is an aggressive use of Tesla3 cars as data collection sensors with a product warning that defeats the feature’s purpose (like, don’t take your hands off the wheel when you are in auto-drive), Tesla’s battery technology is good for the environment.

What our overseas readers may not know is that the supply and quality of supply of electricity across Australia varies, and that the market operator (AEMO) instructs distributors in times of low supply to perform the euphemistically named ‘load shedding’.

Load shedding is an instruction to distributors to turn off supply to a percentage of customers in a region. Without warning.

So when its 45 degrees C outside, the aircon is on, cooling your partner and children down, bang. It’s turned off just like that. For anywhere up to ~8 hours. Right when you need it. Aircon, internet, refrigeration, lighting, all gone. If you have life saving medical equipment in your home they rightly do not turn supply off.

The Powercor distributor representative I interviewed said how load shedding works is that each suburban zone is on a roster, and when they get the AEMO instruction to ‘load shed’ they rotate to the next suburb on a spreadsheet and turn off the substations supply to that zone.

The Hornsdale Wind Farm that is contiguous with the Tesla battery array is a fabulous move away from the need to load shed.

Another promising new $25B project involving sustainable energy is being invested in to the tune of $50M by the aforementioned Atlasssian founder, and is a solar/battery array to be built in Tennant Creek, in the sun drenched and parched Northern Territory. Bizarrely, given Australia’s energy crisis, the supply so generated will be directed at Singapore, for payback on the Singaporean Sun Cable’s owners ~$25B AUD investment.

Singapore as the crow flies is ~4200kms from Tennant Creek with seas in between. Sydney is ~2300 kms across land.

However, very telling is that Singapore has the second highest population density in the world after the billionaires paradise, Monaco. And also an absence of land to place solar arrays.

The population density of Australia is almost last at 192nd in the world, and the least dense of the most populous countries in the world, being 100th out of 100. But thats not measured by arable landmass, just total.

As electric vehicles move to mainstream, both for consumer and industrial vehicles, and fossil fuels cease to be acceptable, just as CFCs became unacceptable in the 1980s, this is the key challenge for Australia. It’s geographic tyranny, both remote from the world and remote inside itself — the challenge is how we provide an Australia-wide, always on low latency digital/electric infrastructure that will have the knock on effect of removing the bottleneck that restricts work and living desirability to capital cities.

Afterword

Sir Sidney Kidman (1857–1935) was Australia’s greatest cattle baron. He left school at the age of 13 and left home with a one eyed horse. He ran a bullock team and sold 10 of them at £4 to own 1/14th of BHP, which if he hadn’t sold it for £60 profit, would be worth a staggering $9.2B today.

From these humble beginnings, starting from nothing and working as butcher and bullock driver, he established a network of drought proof cattle tracks across Australia from the far north and north west to the southern states. At the time of his death he owned 3% of the total land in Australia, a staggering 280,000 km 2, slightly less than the size of Italy, and more land than the whole of New Zealand.

If he could build an Australia wide drought-proof network to move cattle a hundred years ago, surely nearly 100 years later we can build a low latency resilient digital/electric infrastructure, and solve the systemic water shortage.

Afterword 2

For those mathematically minded theres a new article on Springer SN Computer Science where the authors model green data centres and theorise how to optimise workload execution when green energy inputs fluctuate.

Originally published at https://curiousnews.tech.

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