Could Scotland become an international connectivity hotspot for hyperscalers?

In September 2020, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson alluded to the notion that Scotland could become the “Saudi Arabia” of renewables, particularly wind power, as the drive toward a carbon-neutral future marches on. It’s an entirely valid viewpoint and not one exclusive to the leader of Great Britain. But with significant investment in Scotland’s digital infrastructure looming, could the nation offer something else to the likes of FAMGA and other hyperscaler organisations?

Much like renewable energy, the digital economy is high on the list of the UK government’s priorities. This is demonstrated by the injection of £1bn into the Shared Rural Network scheme, designed to deliver 4G coverage to 95% of the country by 2025, for which Scotland is set to be one of the chief benefactors.

In addition, the Scottish government has invested £4m in 5G innovation in a bid to drive economic growth across the country. As part of the programme, the Scotland 5G Centre will work with mobile network operators and private network providers to accelerate 5G adoption by launching a network of hubs. It’s believed the enhancement of 4G and 5G connectivity in Scotland could raise the country’s GDP by more than £17bn by 2035.

SSE Enterprise Telecoms is also committed to improving the nation’s digital infrastructure. Working with DataVita, Scotland’s only purpose-built hyper-secure tier three facility, we’re delivering speeds of up to 100Gbps to businesses and public sector organisations operating in the region, providing access to the next generation connectivity underpinning the IoT and 5G roll-out.

DataVita is one of ten land-based data centres currently operational in Scotland, six of which SSE Enterprise Telecoms is connected into. The country is also home to more than 50 subsea cable landing stations, but only four traverse different nations and even less provide direct international connectivity. In fact, in 2018 it was reported that none of the transatlantic submarine cables, either planned or under construction, would be routing into Scotland, despite the fact they would be connecting beyond traditional landing station locations.

But that could be about to change. In 2019, it was announced that SIMEC Atlantis were planning to build the world’s first data centre powered solely by tidal energy. With a target completion date of 2024 and the lure of a data centre powered by renewable sources, this could be a tantalising prospect for hyperscalers looking to build fibre connections between the US and Europe by way of a carbon neutral supply chain.

Speaking to Power Technology, Tim Cornelius, CEO of SIMEC Atlantis stated: “Data is being touted as the new oil. It is arguably becoming the world’s most valuable resource, and the amount of data requiring storage is increasing at a staggering pace. However, data centres are undeniably power hungry, and the clients of data centre operators are rightly demanding power be sourced from renewable and sustainable sources.”

The proposal has also delighted the local community, who have been able to clearly see the potential benefits for the region. Councillor, Karl Rosie, put forward the motion that: “Caithness members confirm their full support for the development of the project to realise its full potential in terms of tidal energy generating capacity and the establishment of the McCloud data centre creating an integrated subsea, terrestrial, data centre and renewables project to provide Scotland with world-class digital infrastructure and the necessary tools to attract hyperscale availability zone requirements.”

But the ocean isn’t just a source of power for data centres in Scotland; it’s potentially a new home too. In an experiment of 2018, Microsoft chose a location just off the Orkney Islands to submerge a data centre into the ocean. Although the widespread deployment of underwater data centres is considered a distant reality, the trial has demonstrated its myriad of benefits, including an inevitably improved resilience to natural hazards and human-led threats to land-based data centres, it also provides a more favourable impact upon the environment and improved technical reliability.

With 855 servers operational within the data centre, only eight failed in the two years spent under water. That’s just 12.5% of the average failure rate for land-based data centres and so represents an immediate cost saving. It’s believed the reason for this improved reliability is a combination of the environment and an absence of human interaction within the suite.

This all leads to the conclusion that, while the Caledonian region may have proven less than appealing for the hyperscaler and digital content provider community previously, Scotland is now a hotbed for innovation, with the potential to attract global mega-brands like Microsoft to its shores. With environmental impact and 5G development seemingly ubiquitously front of mind for both business and political leaders, the country is without doubt leveraging the characteristics of the information age to make significant strides in securing a vibrant future economy. The question is whether the market also recognises this potential. So next time your business is looking for connectivity across Europe, how convinced are you that the shores of Scotland possess the greatest appeal?

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