Ciaran Flanagan is Group Vice President & General Manager of ABB’s Data Center Solutions business. He is tasked with consolidating ABB as a key player in the global data center industry and growing ABB’s presence to a top three player in electrification and automation solutions, globally.
A recent study  of data centers around the world has found “that while their computing output jumped six-fold from 2010 to 2018, their energy consumption rose only six percent.” Contributing to this achievement are ABB’s industry-leading control system platforms and the embedded intelligence of its electrical systems, such as circuit breakers and uninterruptible power sources. Looking ahead, even greater energy efficiencies are on the horizon as the company moves into the field of mass energy-storage and becomes involved in new approaches to energy grid participation. In this interview, the head of ABB’s Global Data Center Solutions business outlines the company’s contributions to these and other areas.
Let us start out with a really fundamental question: Why do we need data centers?
The Internet boom and the economic boom are tightly coupled. The countries that have enjoyed strong economic cycles are those that have advanced information technologies. Powerhouse economies like Germany, South Korea, Japan and North America have IT-driven economies. Data centers are fundamental to that capability; they are essentially the digital factories that convert data and energy into services and value. Furthermore, they have an offset value in terms of reducing energy consumption by, for instance, replacing travel with communications, helping businesses to manage disparate resources effectively and digitally supporting our social fabric. Our internet-based call right now, for instance, is going through a data center. Our economies are strengthened by the fact that we can share data, store it and manipulate it to deliver new services and capabilities, such as mapping the human genome and planning the exploration of space. All these activities are facilitated by data centers.
AR What are the major factors driving the data center market and how have these factors changed over time?
CF Looking across the 2000s, the pervasiveness of digital services and the quantity of digital content have powered the transition to the public cloud and the exponential increase in data center services. The initial focus was providing services to the public and enterprises to make their existing activities and processes more efficient. In the future there will be a shift to machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. If you look at 5G, for instance, it will probably be dominated by M2M communication. Of course, ABB is itself part of this trend. Given our commitment to Industry 4.0 and remote services such as diagnostics and predictive maintenance, our own thirst for data and connectivity has grown rapidly. In addition, we expect to see similar demands developing as AI advances, as well as with the need to retool enterprise IT and also a natural cycle of renewal as facilities built in the 1990s are replaced.
As these trends have developed, data centers have become bigger, increasingly automated and more energy intensive. Twenty years ago, everyone was building data centers of about half a megawatt. Today, either they are building very big centers – 50 MW and up – or very small ones – 2 MW or less. All in all, the industry is looking for economies of scale in either size or distribution.
AR To what extent is energy minimization becoming a driving factor in your field?
CF The industry is doing a lot of good things. The mechanical and IT disciplines have driven out a lot of excess waste over the past few years. Now we are looking more closely at energy distribution and operations automation.
All in all, the industry’s level of efficiency has been quite phenomenal. I think that as we work our way into this new decade, we will see the quest for efficiency go into even higher gear. Already, we are moving away from a purely return-on-investment mindset to a culture of incremental efficiency and a Six-Sigma type commitment to driving out waste.
AR You are convinced the critics of data centers were wrong about energy efficiency?
CF I think the critics will have an opportunity to assess some new and emerging research. A recent article published in the journal Science , which was based on research at Northwestern University, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an independent research firm and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, confirms what we in the industry have been witnessing – in other words that the energy consumption of the world’s data centers is somewhere between one percent and two percent. I think that is about the most accurate measure we have. The article discredits those who were predicting an exponential rate of increase in data center energy demand and expresses a position we support.
To give you a ballpark idea of how energy-efficient data processing has become, which is the key function inside data centers, if the airline industry had demonstrated the same level of efficiency a 747 would be able to fly from New York to London on 2.8 liters of fuel in around eight minutes! There’s always room for further improvements in energy efficiency.
AR The industry’s level of efficiency may be impressive, but we’re still talking about a heck of a lot of energy. What are data center operators doing to reduce their CO2 footprint?
CF The industry has made great strides in this area. Thanks to power purchase agreements (PPAs) in North America, Europe and elsewhere, the big data center operators are working ever more closely with utilities and in fact, I see an opportunity for the data center industry to become a larger part of the utility industry than it already is.
For instance, we are starting to move into the area of mass energy storage and are developing systems that improve and enhance the efficiency of such systems. Why? Because that is probably the one area of green energy that has the potential to really move the needle. When industry cracks the nut of economic mass energy storage, the renewable energy adoption will take off.
ABB already sells battery energy storage systems. Here, the real magic from our point of view is in the control systems and software. We are delivering battery storage units that have intelligence and can interface with existing green energy generation plants.
AR Which ABB technologies are instrumental in terms of maximizing data center efficiency?
CF ABB has been in the data center industry for as long as the industry has existed – that is, roughly 25 years →01. We have focused on two critical areas: data center electrification and data center control and automation. We believe that in these two areas we offer the most modern, innovative, and energy efficient products and solutions for distributing energy. I’ll give you a few examples.
First, our uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems offer class-leading energy efficiency →02. For instance, our new Megaflex UPS solution delivers 97.4 percent efficiency regardless of load.
Circuit breakers are another key area. They protect people and equipment, but they themselves use energy. Our circuit breakers are class leading in terms of their own energy consumption. Beyond that, they are the most sophisticated in terms of data analytics. They provide our customers with outstanding access and visibility regarding what is going on. This intelligence gives the customer the ability to make decisions regarding on where and how to use energy. And all of this is backed up by ABB’s very robust and mature cyber security capability. In fact, ABB is one of the market leaders and most trusted brands when it comes to security in industrial control systems.
Finally, we offer a control system platform that is the eyes, ears and brains of many data centers. In fact, ABB Ability™ Data Center Automation is specifically designed for the data center industry. Nevertheless, given our decades of experience in other industrial applications, our strategy is to develop solutions for the broad industrial market and then apply them to different industries. As a result, our distributed control systems are effectively the same for a data control center as for a nuclear power plant or a skyscraper office block.
These systems are highly effective at gathering data and thus help our customers make energy- related decisions. The systems sit outside the electrical infrastructure and see everything from cooling to electrical to security.
One thing that is absolutely critical to the success of a control platform is the underlying infrastructure. That means that things like circuit breakers and transformers must have intelligence. So, when we develop new products, we look to embed connectivity, intelligence and accessibility in them so that these elements can interface seamlessly with the control system.
AR Concretely, how is ABB improving the energy efficiency of its major customers?
CF ABB is committed to supporting our data center customers and has emerged as a leader in energy efficiency. For instance, at the Mooresville, North Carolina (USA) GIGA Data Centers , ABB maximized scalability while helping GIGA achieve an ultra-low power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating. GIGA achieved a PUE of 1.15 per 50kW rack cabinet as compared with a 2019 industry average of 1.67.
Another great example is NextDC of Brisbane, Australia. ABB partnered with NextDC for their electrical infrastructure and automation technology systems to enable the company to monitor and tune their critical data center infrastructure. We have provided them with a comprehensive solution that includes complete power distribution systems, a critical services monitoring system (CSMS), and associated implementation and support services. The CSMS provides energy, cost and time savings.
And near Stockholm, Sweden, Ericsson, one of the world’s largest telecommunications network equipment suppliers, partnered with ABB to orchestrate its 20,000 m2 Global Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Center . Thanks to ABB Ability™ Data Center Automation, all three of the center’s control systems –
the building management system (BMS), the smart power management system (PMS) with automated functions, and the energy management system (EMS) – are handled through a single point of control. The Center has been able to achieve energy savings while reducing operational and capital spending. What’s more, the facility provides heating and cooling services throughout its surrounding area through Stockholm’s district heating system.
AR In what major ways do you expect the data center industry to develop over the next few years?
CF What we are already witnessing is the incremental quest to drive out energy waste. Data center operators are certainly becoming increasingly aware of the cost of wasting energy. As this trend expands, the data center industry will concentrate more and more on how it sources its energy, with an emphasis on using renewable energy. Furthermore, data center operators will increasingly engage with grid operators. That is where we get into new business models such as shared energy storage assets and share demand-response strategies. All in all, engagement with the public and consumers and stewardship of energy sources will be increasingly important, even as demand for services grows.
As for our role in all of this, the beating heart of ABB is that we are a customer-driven technology company. What ultimately drives us is our customers’ goals.
 S. Lohr, “Cloud computing Is not the energy hog that had been feared,” The New York Times, para 2, Feb. 27, 2020. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/technology/cloud-computing-energy-usage.html
 E. Masanet et al, “Recalibrating global data center energy-use estimates,” Science, Vol. 367, Issue 6481, pp.984-986, Feb 28, 2020. Available: https://science. sciencemag.org/ content/367/6481/984
 ABB, “ABB enables smarter data center solutions for North Carolina-based GIGA Data Center”. Available: https://new. abb.com/news/ detail/39304/ abb-enables-smarterdata-center-solutionsfor-north-carolinabased-giga-data-center
 ABB, “ABB’s all-in-one automation system means efficient, sustainable reliability for Ericsson’s global data”. Available: https://new. abb.com/news/ detail/14312/ abbs-all-in-one-automation-system-means-efficient-sustainable-reliability-for-ericssons-global-data-center or page 21 of this edition of ABB Review.