techUK Future Summit: Digital Infrastructure Session Summary
In this session we reviewed our response to the existential threat presented by Coronavirus over the last 11 months, during which the UK’s data centre sector successfully accommodated a huge uplift in demand to support the move to online working, as well as an increase in remote services for existing customers to reduce travel and limit routes for infection. Government too acted swiftly and decisively, establishing a dedicated team, adding the sector to the key workers list, providing quarantine exemption and protecting construction. With this in mind, we considered how to approach the future, the ongoing challenges the sector faces and whether more policy intervention – or less – is needed.
We were lucky to have three excellent speakers who provided complementary perspectives.
Emily Foley is Head of the Data Infrastructure Resilience Team within DCMS - the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and she and her colleagues are tasked with protecting the sector’s resilience and security. Emily explained that Whitehall had long been aware of the sector but activity was fragmented. The pandemic accelerated the establishment of a coordinated policy function led by DCMS and work started immediately to support and protect the sector and establish whether policy intervention would be needed. This change of stance is already reflected the National Data Strategy and the National Security and Investment Bill.
Kurtis Lindqvist, CEO of London Internet Exchange (LINX), provided insights on the impact of the pandemic on internet traffic and explained that the system, already set up to deal with significant peaks, had plenty of capacity to accommodate the higher levels of data flows needed to support online government, business, education and leisure. He also shared some fascinating observations on trends, including geographical variance. Kurtis also provided an excellent blog on data flows earlier in the year which you can find here.
Jack Bedell-Pearce, MD of 4D Data Centres and Vice Chair of techUK’s Data Centres Council, has hosted regular operator calls from March last year to raise issues and share knowledge. Jack explained the challenges of balancing infection control with service provision in critical environments, and has chaired discussions on multiple topics from PPE to mental health. You can find his informative and entertaining blog on mental health here.
Our panel considered the present and future constraints on capacity and resilience, which included access to skills, supply chain bottlenecks, uncertainty over data flows and fibre tax. We also discussed the policy interventions that might be needed to provide the right regulatory and business environment for data centres – and the multiple economic sectors that depend on them - to flourish.
There was plenty of common ground among the panellists. All agreed that many of the changes we have seen in operational practice look set to be permanent. This is also true for the way that the sector communicates with government. Most importantly, they also concurred that the success of our digital economy and trade in digital services depend on state-of-the-art data infrastructure that is secure, efficient, reliable and cost-effective. It also depends, now and in the future, on adequate market capacity and we need to work together to ensure that the UK’s data centre sector continues to be resilient and competitive.
It was also clear that we need to think strategically; there are still a lot of dots to join on both sides. The infrastructural role of data centres is not recognised in all areas of policy and some, like planning, lag behind. We should also remember that our cup is half full, not half empty: we have a globally important data infrastructure sector in the UK with an enviable track record, so we should celebrate the sector’s many strengths and build on what we do well.
You can find a recording of our fireside chat on data infrastructure here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKNNLRGlbOA&list=PLrH1-ZOwvyINL13LcKmZxT-DVQLkAaZuV&index=5
And the full event is online here: