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#TransparencyNow: Insights from Ciaran Flanagan, one of our Open Data Hub Ambassadors
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3 Mar 2022

#TransparencyNow: Insights from Ciaran Flanagan, one of our Open Data Hub Ambassadors

Daan Terpstra
Daan Terpstra

Last summer, we announced our Open Data Hub – a resource meant to boost transparency, trust, and data availability to help researchers, industry, and society realize a sustainable digital economy. In the lead up to its launch, we are recruiting Ambassadors to help raise awareness about the initiative as well as galvanize support. In our interview series #TransparencyNow, we sit down with our Ambassadors to explore why they signed up for the role and what greater transparency will mean for the digital infrastructure sector.

In this interview, our Director of Communications & External Relations, Michael J. Oghia,  spoke to Ciaran Flanagan, one of our official Open Data Hub Ambassadors and an Individual Member of the SDIA. They discussed Ciaran's extensive industry background, why he became an official Ambassador, and what positive impact more transparency can have on the industry. It has been lightly edited for clarity. Scroll down if you want to read through the interview.

Last summer, we announced our Open Data Hub – a resource meant to boost transparency, trust, and data availability to help researchers, industry, and society realize a sustainable digital economy. In the lead up to its launch, we are recruiting Ambassadors to help raise awareness about the initiative as well as galvanize support. In our interview series #TransparencyNow, we sit down with our Ambassadors to explore why they signed up for the role and what greater transparency will mean for the digital infrastructure sector.

In this interview, our Director of Communications & External Relations, Michael J. Oghia,  spoke to Ciaran Flanagan, one of our official Open Data Hub Ambassadors and an Individual Member of the SDIA. They discussed Ciaran's extensive industry background, why he became an official Ambassador, and what positive impact more transparency can have on the industry. It has been lightly edited for clarity. Scroll down if you want to read through the interview.

Michael J. Oghia 0:06
Hello, and welcome to SDIA’s #TransparencyNow interview series. My name is Michael Oghia. Last summer, we announced our Open Data Hub, a resource meant to boost transparency, trust, and data availability to help researchers, industry, and society realize a sustainable digital economy. In the lead up to its launch, we are recruiting ambassadors to help raise awareness about the initiative, as well as galvanize support. #TransparencyNow gives us an opportunity to sit down with our ambassadors to explore why they signed up for the role and what greater transparency will mean for the digital infrastructure sector. Joining me today is Ciaran Flanagan, an Ireland based data center expert, and one of our newest Open Data Hub ambassadors. Welcome, Ciaran.

Ciaran Flanagan 0:57
Thank you, Michael. Good to talk. Thank you.

Michael J. Oghia 1:00
So Ciaran, let's jump right in. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you go from where you began to where you are now?

Ciaran Flanagan 1:08
Yeah, thanks, Michael. So my background is actually in software engineering, which I didn't do very much of in my career, if I have to be honest. I started off in the semiconductor industry in Ireland here with Intel. And I spent a good few years working in the microprocessor manufacturing arena. And then I transitioned from there as part of my role at Intel into the data center industry about 20 years ago. At that time the industry was very new, but not quite brand new. I mean, the industry has been around in some form or another probably since the late 70s, early 80s. But it was right about the time of the dotcom explosion and expansion. So I moved into a couple of consulting roles with Intel. And then I had a couple of other roles with people like Nokia, and then most recently with ABB and ISG. So, in my career in the last 20 years in data centers I've been involved in data center operations, data center design and construction, I’ve sat on both sides of the facility, the whitespace, the IT element, and then also the critical facilities. And it's been a fantastic journey. I look back on some of the things we've done as an industry with a lot of pride and a lot of excitement. And I look forward to what we're going to do in the future and how this industry is so relevant to economic growth. And now to the challenge of the climate emergency and the whole challenge of sustainability in general, I think this industry is really up for that as well.

Michael J. Oghia 2:50
That's really such an interesting backstory, but also a really good segue into so much of what we want to discuss in this interview. You already mentioned the climate emergency. With your vast experience with this topic, why do you think it's so hard to get reliable information about the state of sustainability from within the digital infrastructure sector?

Ciaran Flanagan 3:31
That's a really tough question. And obviously, lots of people have different opinions. I would answer that across a couple of dimensions. Firstly, I think we have to recognize that the need for this information is being driven by climate change and sustainability generally, which is a relatively new requirement, or at least the intensity or the urgency is relatively new. So I wouldn't say that transparency is necessarily a reluctance of the industry. I think it's more a question of the industry maturing. If we look across the industry, I think the data is there — I think the tools and the telemetry that we need to get access to the data is there. And I think now it becomes more about the industry understanding why the data is required, what will be done with the data, and what the impact may be on the industry at large and even as individual operators. So now it's really more about trust and collaboration than it is about the technical challenge of the data. For example, look at Ireland. Very recently our grid operator, EirGrid, outlined how much of the energy in Ireland has been used by data centers, and that's information that they have. It's not that difficult to find but now it becomes a question of trust and collaboration across the industry, to make sure that the data is being used for good, and it's not disadvantageous to anybody, and that people are fully aware and [have] fully bought into what that data will lead to in the future.

Michael J. Oghia 5:11
That is so on point, I couldn't agree with you more. It's a really interesting point you make. Because I'll be frank, sometimes I can be a bit cynical. And I can say, people have to protect their business model, or there's just this inherent lack of trust or something. But I liked how you just mentioned that it's less about reluctance and more about the maturing of the industry. And that's really interesting how you discussed that.

Ciaran Flanagan 5:45
Yeah. And I think Mike, we can probably get into that in a subsequent question, but for the data itself, there was a time when this data would be considered commercially sensitive. But I think we're gone past that. Everybody expects that their data center operator, their cloud provider will be sustainably responsible. So we can get into that.

Michael J. Oghia 6:08
Well, I certainly appreciate your optimism there. So much of the Open Data Hub is built on trust and a lot of the work that we're doing is based on trust. So actually that's maybe another good segue into our next question. What is preventing the sector right now from becoming transparent? What's holding companies back from making things such as power consumption public? Especially if according to you there shouldn't be any guardrails anymore. Rather, there shouldn't be any hesitancy, to put it mildly.

Ciaran Flanagan 6:48
Yeah. So I think Michael, the hesitancy is probably still rooted in a belief that energy consumption is commercially sensitive. And I think there are some good reasons why that might be the case, right? Some companies might consider their energy consumption data to be commercially sensitive — personally, I don't necessarily feel that myself. And I've talked to a lot of clients who've come on that journey, and they're becoming a lot more open, and are willing to be more transparent. And I think the industry now is at a point where the expectation is that if you are providing data center capacity or cloud services, that you can stand up as a supplier and say, I am being as sustainable as I can be. And I think that's an important distinction as well. Sustainability in France, for example, or Norway, is a little bit easier because of the carbon intensity than it would be sometimes in Ireland. So we've got this kind of mix going on. I think the second part of that challenge then for the industry, is that it's less a focus on the consumption. I'm really interested in the carbon impact of the data center industry. And I think that if we can find a way through collaboration, to allow operators to talk about what their carbon impact has been on a weekly, monthly, or an annual basis — and how they see the mitigation, I think that would be a fantastic step forward. I think, the industry recognizes that if we don't move forward with a more transparent model around, you know, our consumption, we will be legislated at some point to provide that information. So, I feel it's better. And that's why I'm really interested in the Open Data Hub. I feel it's better that we really get in there now, and start to work with the industry, as interested parties collaborating to find our path forward. And I think that will probably uncover for everybody, it will probably uncover some new opportunities to be even more efficient.

Michael J. Oghia 9:04
We certainly appreciate that. We completely agree with you and this is one of the biggest benefits of the Open Data Hub, at least in theory is, that we'll be able to help policymakers and regulators make better-informed choices. In other words more data-driven choices, or data-driven decisions as opposed to reactionary ones or whatnot. And so, this leads us really well into our next question. And that is, how do you think a trustworthy independent reporting body such as what we're proposing with the Open Data Hub might actually change a lot of these trends that we’ve mentioned about the lack of transparency, or unwillingness to be transparent, or the variance that exists between these different countries. How might the Open Data Hub change these ongoing issues?

Ciaran Flanagan 10:16
Let's step back a little bit. I'm an optimist by nature. And I think generally speaking the data is there and the telemetry is there. From a technology point of view, we are in good shape. It would be ironic, you'd have to admit if the data center industry couldn't manage the data. So I think that we've got that bit cracked. I think for the Open Data Hub, there's a number of things that I'm really interested in. 

  1. One, I'm really interested in engaging with the industry at large to figure out what we can do to make this a benefit for the industry. So where the operators and the providers see benefits in providing the data, not just for use in shaping policy and benchmarking, but also that they get some benefits themselves and how they compare themselves to their peers in the industry, or even how they work with local governments to influence energy policy at a country level. So that's the first thing, I think there's got to be something there for the operators. 
  2. The second thing, which I think is really important, is that it's got to be easy to engage. I really don't think we should be asking the industry to generate another set of reports. I think that generally speaking, the data on consumption is probably aggregated at some regional or national level by system operators, the distribution system, or the transmission system operators. So I think there's an angle there where we can probably, with the permission of the industry, go to these grid and energy providers and say: Look, we really want to start looking at the data. We can anonymize the data so that people aren't unduly exposed if they don't wish. 
  3. And then the final piece of it is — and this is kind of where I think back to some of the things that this industry has achieved in the past — when the data is available, and the activity is transparent I would be very confident that this industry will find new ways to solve the problems to solve the challenges that we haven't even thought of today. I think back to the earlier part of the 2000s, where simple things like air separation drove down the energy consumption on chillers, and different cooling technologies really made data centers more efficient. I think about the fact that the data center industry continues to deliver more compute capacity and doesn't take up much more energy. And we've seen some recent reporting from the IEA on that. So there's no doubt that this industry can innovate. There's no doubt that this industry can be forward-thinking. And I think that getting this data, open and transparent, will help promote that level of collaboration and will hopefully point us in a direction we may have not even seen yet.

Michael J. Oghia 13:12
I certainly appreciate your optimism. I really hope that that's the case as well. And I couldn't agree more with the spirit of what you're discussing and about how there needs to be benefits to joining. That is very much something that we've embedded within the Open Data Hub, like architectures and what's in it for me. There's nothing wrong with that question. We have an answer. And that's what we've outlined in the announcement that we published earlier this year. But I really also appreciate your points that it needs to be easy to engage and that when data is available, and when the transparency is there it will lead to innovation — or innovation in the sense of being able to address challenges that weren't necessarily on the radar even a few years ago, and now they are. Now we have society, customers, and the government saying, how are you going to solve these problems?

Ciaran Flanagan 14:19
Yeah. And there's a point there, Michael, that I think I'll touch on now. The industry, the cloud providers, CSPs, and the data center operators, they're being driven by their clients' requirements as well, right. So their clients are saying we want you to demonstrate, be sustainable, etc. So I think that's part of the whole ecosystem, too.

Michael J. Oghia 14:46
It's not just about external calls for regulation or for transparency. It's really like demand-driven from the customer, and what speaks louder than people's wallets? And obviously, in this case your customers wallets? Ultimately, it's about servicing them. So, excellent point, and I'm really glad that you brought that up. Now, turning to the next question, and this one is somewhat related and that is: Given your focus on sustainability, what made you decide to join SDIA and what made you want to become an ambassador?

Ciaran Flanagan 15:32
I've been involved in sort of early stage policy for a number of years. I was part of the EU Code of Conduct, the initial revision of the EU Code of Conduct, and also the EUDCA and Uptime Institute. And I've done a little bit of work with government bodies and the EU in the past. I've always been interested in sustainability and in energy politics particularly. Specifically, in the case of the SDIA, Michael, I was very intrigued or encouraged to see the SDIA taking a broad view on sustainability. Sustainability for the SDIA, it's not just about carbon, it's about the supply chain, it's about the kind of work that we do in Europe. For example, it's about having an infrastructure that's sustainable from the point of view of smart cities, from the point of view of embedded carbon, from the point of view of energy consumption, from the point of view of the impact on the environment, from water. It's a much more holistic view of sustainability. I have to be honest, up until a couple of years ago my view on sustainability was carbon. And then I had a look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which are a weighty topic in themselves, but it really did get me seeing a much broader view of sustainability. And I think that the SDIA has met that challenge.  I think that the SDIA is taking the position where sustainability is bigger than carbon, and I think that's where the value is going to come from in the longer term.

Michael J. Oghia 17:03
Well, we certainly appreciate that. And I really do mean that, because the link that you just said to how the SDGs actually kind of helped broaden your perspective about sustainability, that's something that really, personally resonates as well. You don't know so much about me, but I've been an ICT sustainability advocate since 2016 and for me, I was always saying like, okay carbon is a big deal, but what about minerals? What about the resources? What about water? What about supply chains, people, the communities? And so, having SDIA come and link all of the SDGs to the Roadmap, but also we need to focus on the planet, people, business cases, etc. It's really holistic, as you said.

Ciaran Flanagan 18:01
I don't know if we can touch on this Michael, but one of the things that I have learned as well is that ethics and sustainability are not necessarily tightly coupled. You can buy very sustainable solutions from an energy perspective, but they may not be ethical, for whatever reason. So it’s multi-dimensional and I really do think that the market is sophisticated. I worked with Amazon, for example, in the past and Amazon is very rigorous about making sure that their supply chain partners have a full view on any ethical, or sustainability, or government governance risk, and I applaud them for that.

Michael J. Oghia 18:40
Thanks. And I always say that all efforts should be applauded, when they are meant and when they include ways to make supply chains cleaner and greener. More respect for human rights and environmental rights etc. So I'm glad that you've had a good experience with them. I absolutely agree with you about coupling ethics and sustainability. And if you think about it, what is sustainability? Okay, it's trying to ensure that we can meet the needs of the present without sacrificing the needs of the future. But at the same time, what are those needs? It comes back down to essentially two things: the planet and the people, because we want to make sure that our external environment is worth living in. And we want to make sure that the people who are living and populating this planet and our biospheres are able to have a healthy and happy life, and a prosperous one too. In that sense, it's cyclical, just like with most things in nature, and it relies on the other. The fact that you can bring that perspective into your ambassadorship is wonderful, it just aligns so perfectly with what we're doing at SDIA and how we envision all of this together. Let's pivot now. I mentioned innovation a bit earlier. What do you think will be the impact on innovation and solving some of the problems and challenges that you alluded to in the sector, when more information on environmental performance, or energy and resource consumption, are publicly available?

Ciaran Flanagan 20:33
The digital industry clearly has a long history of innovation. I would say that this industry is really part of solving the climate challenge and the sustainability challenge in general because of some of the things we can do. I won't go into all of that detail now. But things like teleworking, and your new services and new capabilities will keep coming to the fore. I think when we've got an even better view on the sustainable impact of data centers, we may be innovating about how we deliver services, but also where we deliver those services from. I think there's undoubtedly a huge amount of innovation already in flight around, for example, with breaking down workloads. You see it with things like containers and Kubernetes, and all of those technologies, that give service providers a lot of flexibility in where they want to work, how they want to run the workload, and potentially where they want to run the workload. So we will probably find in time that workloads will follow low-cost energy, and low-cost energy will be energy that's hopefully renewable energy, but it's energy that's available at a point in time where nobody else needs it. So you'll probably find in the future that some of these big heavy workloads will start moving around the network much more elegantly than they do today. And I think that innovation will be software-driven, I think it'll be a software-defined data center, it'll be software-defined power, it'll be software-defined everything. And the network will really federate where workload happens for the best effect and minimal impact. That's probably the next phase of computing we will see. And I think that will have a very positive impact on the carbon footprint of the data center industry generally.

Michael J. Oghia 22:25
I absolutely hope that that's the case. And again, sorry, if I sound less than optimistic, but I completely agree with you. I really hope that that's how it goes, just as a kind of a slight follow up question, what is the role of transparency in helping that to come to fruition?

Ciaran Flanagan 22:44
So transparency across all of the operational elements, like water, energy, and supply chain hopefully will give the cloud providers and the data center operators a view on the real time impact of a workload at a particular location, at a particular point in time, right. So they should know at point X workload Y will have this impact. And if we move workload Y to another location, it will have this impact. And hopefully, there'll be impact arbitrage. Eventually, I'm sure there'll be artificially intelligent systems to help move the workload proactively to where the impact is less. But you can really only understand the impact if the data is really understood, and transparency around that data will be really, really, important. 

Michael J. Oghia 23:33
That's brilliant. And I couldn't agree more. Along the same lines, this is a final question for you Ciaran: What do you think will be the first area within digital infrastructure that will radically change if metrics like energy consumption are publicly reported?

Ciaran Flanagan 23:57
I think the area with the most potential right now is the whole concept of edge computing. You're really putting the workload into your more fit for purpose capacities, and moving it closer to where it needs to be. Obviously, I think there's still going to be a need for large data centers to host very static data or data that doesn't change much. But I think the whole area of edge and how edge interacts with the telecoms infrastructure, I think that's where we're going to see a lot of innovation. And in the past, we assumed that if you just build the data centers bigger and bigger, they become more and more efficient, and that may be the case for some workloads, but I don't think that will be the case for every workload. That's where I would expect to see most of the innovation. Generally, I'm optimistic about the industry's ability to innovate and get better and more efficient, and Moore's law and many, many examples of that are there for all to see. On the other side, the challenge is to that collaboration and trust — The challenge is bringing the industry together, to really share, and to make people feel comfortable with sharing this information so that we can find an even more efficient way to do what we do today

Michael J. Oghia 25:14
Ciaran you couldn't have ended this, or concluded this in a better way. You're absolutely right, the challenge is collaboration and trust. That is very much what we at SDIA are trying to do, we understand that it is not always easy. It's certainly difficult because there's lots of obstacles to that. There's a lot of pre-existing ways of working, or pre-existing modes of working that may prove onerous to overcome, but we appreciate, and we’re doing it.

Ciaran Flanagan 25:58
I was at an industry event yesterday, and I was talking to somebody who works for one of the major data center global operators, and we concluded that they were probably getting to a point in time now where there's going to be, like, the Cloud buyers alliance. So where large enterprises will come together, like the Ford Motor Company, HSBC bank, and Deutsche Bank, they will start to get together. And they will say we are now the Cloud buying alliance and this is our code of conduct. This is what we expect. So I think that this coalescing and collaboration, and trust, this is the piece that I'm really excited about at the SDIA playing in, because I think we can advocate for that kind of change.

Michael J. Oghia 26:50
That is wonderful. And of course, it's always better to get ahead of what's coming, or what people want. When I say people, I mean, consumers, customers, and regulators. It's always better to be ahead, and come to them and say we already did the work. Here you go, we understand and recognize that this is a priority for you, and therefore it's a priority for us. So Ciaran, this brings us to the end of this interview. And I cannot thank you enough for joining us today. Thank you so much. We really look forward to working more with you. And we appreciate all of your support.

Ciaran Flanagan 27:34
Great. My pleasure, Michael, thank you very much.

Michael J. Oghia 27:37
To all of those who tuned into this interview. Thank you for joining as well. In case you're interested in learning more, you can check out our blog, as well as follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter. And remember, together we can build a sustainable digital economy and realize our Roadmap to Sustainable Digital Infrastructure by 2030. Thank you again.

In case you have any questions about the Open Data Hub or you would like to become an Ambassador, see this factsheet, our list of FAQs, the landing page, join our Steering Group, or reach out to us here.

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