Over the past few years, the need for data centers has rapidly increased, fueled by changing work habits and the growth of cloud-based technologies. This has meant the need for more buildings, more land, more cooling systems and more electricity to support the physical infrastructure that runs 24/7.
With 2024 rapidly approaching, so too is the anticipation of a new wave of innovation that’s expected to manifest in the form of increasingly high-performance and data-intensive chips, ever more power-hungry computers, cutting-edge Generative AI technologies and a proliferation of new and novel applications.
While these topics are likely to feature in top trend pieces over the next year, we have started seeing some companies communicate around them already. Nvidia, for example, got a strong grip on the Generative AI story early, making their chips synonymous with the advanced computing required to process the data generated. Meanwhile OpenAI has done a great job of making sure that ChatGPT is seen as ‘the’ application everyone thinks about when generative AI is mentioned.
Of course, with all this demand comes increased competition and noise, which data center companies need to navigate if they are to rise above and differentiate themselves from the competition. According to Straits research, the data center market is expected to reach $554.4 billion by 2030, up from $192.63 billion in 2021, which means a lot of new and expanding players all vying for share of mind and voice.
So what can data center companies do to help them stand out from the crowd?
The first step to differentiate themselves is to hook into the current trends, but it’s vital that they don’t just do this superficially. One such example is ‘Sustainability’ – a hot topic that companies are trying to tap into.
Take Apple’s data center in North Carolina. Apple recently came out claiming that ‘its global facilities are powered with 100 percent clean energy.’ and promotes its 500,000-square-foot data center in Maiden, N.C., by saying it runs “100 percent” on renewable energy.
This all sounds great – until The Carolina Journal does a write up highlighting that the facility gets all of its electricity from Duke Energy, a public utility that primarily generates electricity using coal, nuclear power, and natural gas.
No matter who you are, it’s essential that you are accurate and transparent with your claims, lest you incur the wrath of independent commentators, which in this case was from an Austria-based researcher familiar with the project calling Apple’s claim “a boldfaced lie” — and further echoed by state House Majority Leader Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, who chairs the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy.
For years data centers companies have been talking about how they are recycling or reusing data center energy to heat homes, grow food or heat swimming pools. These are fantastically innovative examples of ways data center companies are cutting energy waste and making themselves more efficient and sustainable. All topics the media love. However, we have also seen data center companies tell of how they are cooling their data centers by deploying them in the arctic or under the sea using the natural cooling of the environment to trim energy and cooling costs.
At first these were thought to be clever and innovative, which they are. In today’s climate, however, this is evoking a different reaction. One more focused on the broader ‘cost’ in terms of environmental impact. Whereas once it was seen as innovative to use the lake to cool the date center, now people are asking questions about the ecological impacts of warming the sea or melting the arctic.
A recent, example of this was a news story about Paris using Seine water to cool buildings instead of AC. While not data center related, this is an extremely interesting story about innovation, but online commentators were quick to ask:
This shows that while data center companies need to demonstrate their commitment to innovation, showcasing how they are actively participating in, and contributing to, the evolving technology landscape in an environmentally ethical way will go a long way to helping them establish their credibility and avoid falling into the green washing trap.
The 2024 media landscape promises to be one focused on environmental, sustainability and energy-related issues making data centers prime targets for many negatively focused stories.
Issues of stranded capacity, data centers preventing the building of much needed new homes due to high electricity demands, air quality and ecological concerns are already circulating, and as these issues intensify, so too will the pressure on data centers to effectively communicate their efforts to mitigate them.
Given the complexities and challenges that data centers face, taking a proactive stance is crucial to staying on the front foot. While news clippings and thought leadership articles will certainly play a part, it’s clear the mandate of the comms program will need to extend beyond this if it is to assuage critics and positively influence public opinion.
With conversations, influencers and critics participating in conversations across all mediums, whatever comms approach data center companies take needs to be multi-channel and comprehensive in nature; communicating regular transparency reports around data center operations and emissions, regular publication of ESG reports, and an engaged leadership willing to actively address and respond to issues be they on LinkedIn, in the press or at local events.
While these are just a few comms strategies data centers can put into play to support the regular block and tackle activities, it’s clear 2024’s media landscape will require a fresh and more robust communication stance that has come before, and one that prioritizes multi-channel engagement. Amplifying thought leadership, specifically from executives, is vital as pressing narratives like environmental concerns and resource consumption put data centers firmly in the cross hairs.
For data center companies who want to get ahead of the communications challenges headed their way in 2024, it will be essential to communicate transparently about eco-initiatives, sustainability milestones, and energy efficiencies. And it will also be important to remember that this dialogue won’t merely be for business collaborators and local residents residing near data centers, but will also extend to investors, shareholders, and the broader market spectrum.
In essence, the communication efficacy of data centers in 2024 will influence their reputation and stakeholder confidence in subsequent years making it essential to get it right first time.