nLighten wants to build sustainable datacenters all over Europe

nLighten wants to build sustainable datacenters all over Europe

nLighten may only be a young company, but it’s already active in seven countries. As a key driver of sustainable datacenters, nLighten aims to realize its vision across Europe. CEO Harro Beusker explains it doesn’t intend to do so with radical, rapid expansion, but through gradual growth.

nLighten was founded in 2021 by its current CEO Harro Beusker and CTO Chad McCarthy, who both worked at the U.S.-based datacenter giant Equinix. With decades of experience in the sector, both saw a need to move its focal point beyond a small handful of the continent’s largest cities.

Edge datacenters are the next step in the proliferation of technology infrastructure. Since the late 1990s in Europe, five central hubs have emerged: Dublin, Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris (“DFLAP”). Meanwhile, limits to that growth have emerged, made evident through social resistance and logistical constraints.

In 2022, for example, Meta was forced to abandon its plans for a giant datacenter in Zeewolde, Netherlands, and Amsterdam’s municipal council is trying to stop the further expansion of datacenters in the city’s environs. Those are the factors pushing datacenters out of the current epicenters, but there’s also good reason to move out and distribute the infrastructure regardless of what’s happening in the DFLAP locations, as our conversation with Beusker reveals.

From big to small

Beusker has been around the industry long enough to see major breakthroughs in the datacenter world occur in real time. In 1999, he was COO at Interxion, which built retail datacenters in major cities. In order to ensure one could offer a seamless exchange of services and a managed, secure environment with guaranteed power and cooling, there was no way around DFLAP areas. Those became “the foundation of IT,” as Beusker puts it. He highlights that DFLAP still represents more than half of the total datacenter capacity on the continent.

Later followed the cloud revolution, beginning around 2012 – first in the US, a few years later in Europe. From then on, users could not only rent spaces for their own use, but purchase capacity based on a generic server architecture. The Megawatts involved skyrocketed and continue to do so. Big cloud players like AWS, Google and Microsoft constantly require more power, especially now that the extremely compute-heavy field of GenAI is on an upswing. But for end users, there are other concerns.

“Datacenters have now become so commonplace that you have to wonder why they are only located in big cities, and especially in DFLAP.” Along with McCarthy, Beusker has decided to focus on the expansion of edge datacenters, which has been on the rise for a few years.

Edge datacenters proliferate

Edge datacenters have actually been on the rise for a few years now. A widely held vision that accompanies them is that facilities should be closer to the user, which offers benefits such as lower latency and room for local providers and customers to interact. This also offers an opportunity to accelerate sustainability goals, much needed nowadays. We’ll come back to that topic later on.

That first benefit, that of lower latency, has already been realized in Germany. There, customers are experiencing speeds of between 2 and 6 milliseconds. With ten German locations, that country is well covered. Two Dutch datacenters were added late last year and early this year. The location: Amsterdam.

nLighten’s European strategy is not about building brand new locations, but finding the right acquisition targets to expand with. For example, there are now seven French and 11 British datacenters, in addition to two in Switzerland and one datacenter in both Belgium and Spain. With that, nLighten already covers quite a bit of territory. The current tally stands at 34, with a target of 40 or more by the end of 2024. Ultimately, 70 to 100 locations should be enough to cover the continent fully. “The goal is to be as close to the customer as possible throughout Europe,” he said. In the Netherlands for example, three or four will eventually have to be realized to this end.

Different challenges everywhere

For nLighten, it is critical that any expansion make sense over the long term. The company is renovating older datacenters where necessary to make them more efficient, sustainable and useful. That comes with a lot of requirements. “As we go deeper into the region, we can build smaller datacenters. Those have more opportunities to really connect to the local energy infrastructure.” The possibilities to redistribute energy are varied, such as to heat homes, offices and swimming pools. “The water we use is something we can deliver back at 60 to 65 degrees Celsius.” The difference from most datacenters is that they deliver the water at 30 to 35 degrees, which still has to be heated. That takes a lot of energy.

In Frankfurt, nLighten is heating both a large government office and a swimming pool. “These are not easy projects. Before you get the water to the desired location, you have to do a lot of legwork.” In practical terms: laying water pipes and installing heat exchangers at the desired location. Such opportunities can also be exploited in England and (potentially) in the Netherlands. Energy is expensive in those countries and even more expensive in the UK, so alternative sources such as datacenters may find a gap in those markets.

Government assistance is desirable, but private partnerships also offer many possibilities. For example, nLighten has a contract with the German power grid to deliver energy back to the grid when needed. nLighten uses a new type of generator that runs on biogas, ordinary gas or hydrogen. These provide the required 24/7 assurance so that energy is always available to run the datacenters. However, they can also provide energy for the local community when needed. It shows that plans do not always have to be top-down, devised from the EU or national government level to achieve sustainability goals, although Beusker is positive about the role that, for example, ongoing cloud projects such as ECOFED are playing in improving industry standards in this area.

Across the board, nLighten is constantly trying become more sustainable. But, “We cannot yet operate on a 100 percent carbon-free basis.” Still, Beusker believes they have “come a long way” and are leading the charge for sustainability in the datacenter industry. While large companies like TikTok also claim their giant datacenters serve a local utility, Beusker says such claims are a lot more realistic for smaller sites. Instead of tens (or above a hundred) megawatts, we’re talking about 2-5 MW. This amounts to the heating of a local swimming pool, office and/or shopping center rather than an infrastructure project of some garguantuan and unmanageable size.

The power of centralization

By now, we’ve already discussed two of nLighten’s three spearheads. Its motto “Close, Coupled, Connected,” refers to those three priorities. We’ve now seen how nLighten offers edge datacenters close to home (“Close”) that tap into the energy infrastructure in the local area (“Coupled”). What does “Connected” mean, though?

Fundamentally, nLighten is aiming to get the power of large central datacenters down to the regional level. Whereas retail datacenters in DFLAP cities have hundreds of providers offering services, dozens will still be needed at a local level. That amount is enough for a full-fledged “connectivity ecosystem” to emerge, as Beusker puts it. These include telcos, IT providers and, of course, end customers. Bringing them together made DFLAP hubs what they are today, but given the widespread nature of IT, that should be possible at a smaller scale as well. Thus, an organization residing near Stuttgart will be able to get what they need from their IT providers locally rather than having to ask those in Frankfurt to help out.

It should be noted that Beusker is referring to a long-term vision. “We can’t do the impossible. Existing locations will be renovated, not completely rebuilt.” In addition, the latency mentioned within Germany (2-6 ms) does not have the same value to every market. “Latency is mostly a future concern. Only 15 percent of our customers’ workloads are latency-relevant. That figure is rising, but there’s no breakthrough yet.” He does agree, however, that AI may be about to change this. But, like so many developments in the datacenter field: that change will be gradual, just like nLighten’s expansions.

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