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How data centres must cope with drought

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Data centres are utility-hungry installations that require always-on supplies of power and cooling. This means electricity – possibly as much as two percent of the world’s energy – and often, it means water.

As our demand for data, and the infrastructure in which to store it, skyrockets, the data centre industry has demonstrated remarkable ability to improve energy efficiency as it scales. While this technology is currently developed outside South Africa’s borders, threats to our utilities – first load shedding and now the drought in Cape Town – has prompted fresh thinking when local data centres are built and extended.

The fact is that data centres cannot be allowed to go dark – not for lack of electricity or water. The effects of a total loss of data on commercial, financial and government services would be catastrophic.

Internet Solutions’ Bree Street data centre, online since 2007, is an example of legacy infrastructure that was designed with water chillers when the resource was plentiful.

After an intensive study by its coastal data centre operations teams, the company is now replacing these with a closed loop system of air-cooled chillers to reduce water consumption by about 60 percent, while running the data centre slightly warmer than usual to further save water.

Sameer Cassim, R&D Systems Architect at Internet Solutions, says that environmental necessity and shifting client demand are driving the design of data centres built for change and flexibility.

“This includes power and cooling systems that are more agile and resilient,” he says.

Prefabricated for the future

Cassim believes that modular data centre builds, assembled using several prefabricated units, are the way of the future. The first such installation in the Internet Solutions portfolio comes online in Rosebank, Johannesburg, later this year.

Modular design future-proofs investment in the facility – additional modules can scale density up or down, decrease racks or increase cooling to offer clients a flexible data centre service that remains at the forefront of industry standards and changing business requirements.

“Prefabricated data centres are rapidly deployed, allowing operators to scope and redesign each section based on current power, cooling, security and network requirements or availability, says Cassim.

Modern data centre management

Smart monitoring of the data centre environment means intelligent switching between systems for the most favourable conditions in the data centre, and more utility savings.

“Modern software tools enable intelligence from initial modelling, through ongoing monitoring and management, to orchestrated, automatic response to incidents and failures to avoid outages,” says Cassim.

“Like many other aspects of IT, power and cooling management will increasingly become a software-defined activity.”

Intuitive transfer between cooling systems, for example, results in water-dependent cooling used only when necessary, before its load is passed to air cooling systems.

Cassim says that software-defined power management allows data centre operators to virtualise the resource and share it at different instances, based on demand, with various consumers. Depending on activity in the data centre and relevant SLAs, operators can reduce both Capex and Opex spend by ensuring that power is delivered to equipment at the right time and scale, without any losses or waste.

Energy conservation and renewables

The 2016 Cisco Global Cloud Index maintains that annual global data centre IP traffic will reach 15.3 zettabytes or ZB (1.3 ZB per month) by the end of 2020, up from 4.7 ZB per year (390 exabytes or EB per month) in 2015. Further, the data stored in data centres globally will quintuple by 2020 to reach 915 EB by 2020.

It is safe to assume that the utility implications, including carbon footprint, of various data centre technologies will become increasingly relevant in parallel. Again, this is particularly true in South Africa.

A recent study conducted by the US Department of Energy in collaboration with researchers from Stanford University, Northwestern University, and Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that despite demand for data centre capacity in the US growing tremendously in the last five years, total data centre energy consumption grew only slightly.

One of many successful initiatives undertaken by data centre technologists is the Open Compute Platform, which uses a decentralised Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) to improve energy efficiency by removing the power supply from the server.

Another is an Australian indirect evaporative air cooling technology that is inspired by the human body’s own cooling mechanism. Internet Solutions is currently looking at rolling out a ‘proof of concept’ of this system in one of its smaller data centres in Johannesburg.

Alternative energy sources are also under constant study although so far, alternatives such as solar, hydro, geothermal and fuel cell technology are not openly received by data centre operators as the power supply is insufficiently consistent and reliable for uptime.

“We’re seeing a new trend towards installing ‘microgrids’ into data centres which split power sources for different activities,” says Cassim.

This allows carefully limited use of renewable resources, with the source selector equipped to intelligently programme the supply based on minimal demand.

“Cape Town’s drought provided a very immediate reason to examine how we could adapt systems at our Bree Street location,” says Cassim. “Given shifting weather patterns around the world, it’s not surprising that the international trend is towards reducing reliance on utility resources altogether.”

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UN calls for electronics overhaul to beat e-waste

Seven UN entities have come together at the World Economic Forum to tackle the escalating scourge of electronic waste.

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Seven UN entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system, with the aim of supporting international efforts to address e-waste challenges. 

The report calls for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries. 

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are discarded — the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth 62.5 billion dollars– more than the GDP of most countries.  

Less than 20% of this is recycled formally. Informally, millions of people worldwide (over 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment. 

The report, “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” launched in Davos 24 January, says technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), support gradual “dematerialization” of the electronics industry.  

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacturer or retailer take-back programs.  

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential for future production.  

And if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. 

The joint report calls for collaboration with multinationals, SMEs, entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations to create a circular economy for electronics where waste is designed out, the environmental impact is reduced and decent work is created for millions. 

The new report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes: 

  • International Labour Organization (ILO); 
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU); 
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment); 
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); 
  • United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); 
  • United Nations University (UNU), and 
  • Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions (BRS). 

The Coalition is supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Economic Forum and coordinated by the Secretariat of the Environment Management Group (EMG).  

Considerable work is being done on the ground. For example, in order to grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian Government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment announce a 2 million dollar investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. The new investment will leverage over 13 million dollars in additional financing from the private sector.   

According to the International Labour Organization, in Nigeria up 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector. This investment will help to create a system which formalizes these workers, giving them safe and decent employment while capturing the latent value in Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste. 

UNIDO collaborates with a large number of organizations on e-waste projects, including UNU, ILO, ITU, and WHO, as well as various other partners, such as Dell and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). In the Latin American and Caribbean region, a UNIDO e-waste project, co-funded by GEF, seeks to support sustainable economic and social growth in 13 countries. From upgrading e-waste recycling facilities, to helping to establish national e-waste management strategies, the initiative adopts a circular economy approach, whilst enhancing regional cooperation. 

Another Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) report launched today by the World Economic Forum, with support from Accenture Strategy, outlines a future in which Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies provide a tool to achieve a circular economy efficiently and effectively, and where all physical materials are accompanied by a digital dataset (like a passport or fingerprint for materials), creating an ‘internet of materials.’ PACE is a collaboration mechanism and project accelerator hosted by the World Economic Forum which brings together 50 leaders from business, government and international organizations to collaborate in moving towards the circular economy. 

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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