Database surge electrifies HK
Amid intensifying competition to attract and build new data centres, Hong Kong has a clear head start thanks to a couple of key advantages. The city suffers no risk of earthquakes and enjoys one of the world’s most reliable supplies of electrical power, making it a prime location to house the “mission critical” computer systems and off-site back-up on which so much of international business now depends.
“These are massive plus points,” says Stephen Hilton, regional head of engineering and critical facilities for EC Harris.
“Of the places rated least risky to build a data centre, Hong Kong ranks first in Asia and seventh in the world. Contributing to that, it has the landing points for submarine cables, and the government does not try to gain access to information which is protected by law.”
The firm itself specialises in two main areas. It oversees the concept, planning and construction of purpose-designed buildings. It also provides the professionals and expertise needed to keep everything running like clockwork once a data centre is fully commissioned.
Understandably, whatever relates to the actual software – the sensitivities of programming, debugging, firewalls and other related areas – remain very much the responsibility of the individual client.
Predicting a bright future for the sector, with the real possibility of Hong Kong becoming a regional hub, Hilton nevertheless highlights a few concerns.
One, perhaps inevitably, is the scarcity of available – and suitable – greenfield sites. Several large companies have already built data centres in Tseung Kwan O, but finding land for construction is likely to remain a headache, despite concerted action by the authorities to make the process less onerous.
Another is the lack of older industrial buildings. Ideally, these can be converted for use as lower-tier data centres, where system security requirements do not need to be quite as stringent. Encouragingly, developers can now obtain certain waivers if properties are deemed suitable.
A third concern is the anticipated difficulty in finding sufficient qualified and experienced staff to meet the upswing in hiring demand. Applicants may have project-management, engineering or operations backgrounds, but there are still comparatively few with hands-on experience in a sector where knowledge of related disciplines really counts.
To offer practical support, though, Hong Kong now has a data-centre facilitation unit. It is ready to offer companies advice, assistance and co-ordination services to clear away obstacles.
“The government absolutely understands now that data centres, supporting corporate headquarters and hi-tech services, are a requirement for keeping Hong Kong economically successful,” Hilton says.
“If operators take the chance, it is quite possible to make this a regional hub.”
Ramapriyan Singlachar, Verizon’s regional product manager, Asia-Pacific, for data-centre services, has a similarly optimistic view. He has seen a rapid spike in demand, with the amount of information stored in the “digital universe” expanding by a growth factor of nine in the five years to 2011. That took the total to an estimated 1.8 trillion gigabytes, or 1.8 zettabytes.
“With this explosion in data, companies are concerned about its storage, security, privacy and reliable delivery,” Singlachar says. “They are also conscious of and investing in solutions which do more with less, so are outsourcing to single hi-tech data centres or diversifying to multiple locations.”
Having to protect and secure an ever larger volume of critical information, companies are outgrowing their own in-house facilities. They require additional space, capacity and support infrastructure to meet current and future needs. They must also plan for new technology, which allows for higher-density stacking, and take increasing account of energy usage and commitments to sustainability.
Already operating more than 200 data centres in 22 countries, Verizon sees developments in Hong Kong running parallel to those in Europe and the United States. In terms of managing data services for clients, this will lead to more virtualisation and co-location in shared facilities. Taking this step allows companies in sectors as diverse as finance, hospitality and healthcare to scale up and adapt to changing business needs.
“A successful migration [to a specialised data centre] may require a shift in IT thinking and practice,” Singlachar says. “But most IT systems and, ultimately, the companies themselves will benefit from it.”
For example, disaster recovery can be handled more efficiently and the provisioning of new servers is done a lot quicker.
“Streamlining these types of tasks frees the customer’s in-house IT staff to be more proactive in solving other business challenges,” Singlachar says.
Singlachar is confident Hong Kong will be a growth hot spot for the industry, along with Singapore, Japan and Australia. The city can already use its broadband infrastructure, power supply and links to the mainland to become the pre-eminent regional hub.
“Prospects for the sector in the next five years look positive,” Singlachar says. “We are looking for candidates with experience in IT security, cloud computing, cybercrime, solutions engineering, and investigative response.”