Market Insight

From first generation to hyperscale: The whirlwind evolution of Data Centres

The world’s first Data Centre can be traced back to 1940s America, when the innovative programmable computer - the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) -was developed.
July 2, 2024
The world’s first Data Centre can be traced back to 1940s America, when the innovative programmable computer – the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) -was developed.

With this new technology came a requirement to house it in what was soon to become known as the Data Centre.  But what are data centres and how are they evolving? What does good data centre design look like and what does the future hold for this fast-evolving sector?

Data centre expert, David Barden, who is Regional Managing Partner for our Thames Valley region where much of the UK supply of data centres is located, explores.

From the first intelligence led data centres, it wasn’t long before rapid innovation in computing technology by IT innovators such as IBM, saw the arrival of personal computing in the 1980s.

A new technological era had been born and with it came an increasing requirement to house more and more data – a thirst for data which has increased exponentially in recent years.

Everything we do today, every interaction we have, everything we watch, involves a breathtaking amount of data which has to be stored somewhere.

In the UK, this is predominantly in the South East – specifically in Docklands, West London, and the Thames Valley – which is where some of the very first generation data centres evolved.

What are Data Centres and what do they look like?

From my first instruction on a Data Centre in Slough to the hyperscales we see today, a lot has changed.

They did, in fact, start out much like any other industrial asset but, today, have evolved and still compete with the industrial land supply market.

Over the last 13 years that we have been involved in this sub-sector of the industrial market, the data centre market as we know it has evolved at a tremendous pace – from the assets themselves, to the leasing models that the landlords deploy.

First Generation: Single-storey Data Centres

Many of the first-generation data centres were relatively small by today’s standards and converted for use.

Aside from the security that surrounded them, there wasn’t a great deal to differentiate them from existing stock, in terms of specification. They had the advantage of location, power and connectivity, which remains a key determinant for the market.

Whereas they may have had double gated entrances and security cameras around their environs, specification-wise, there was nothing particularly ‘special’ about them when compared with other industrial peers.

Back then, they varied in size but were industrial buildings which had been repurposed for data centre usage.

Second Generation: Double-stacked Data Centres

Then came the second generation of data centres which were largely purpose-built mid-big box warehouses, with an operator already lined up.

These buildings were generally 8-12m high, portal frame cladded warehouses with mezzanines to allow double-stacking of data halls.

Again, the main differentiator was the fact that these were high security buildings, with low activity around them.

What made them different was the availability of multiple power and connectivity sources, as well as the fact that they were generally low risk sites. This remains a key determinant of a data centre.

Third Generation: Hyperscalers

As demand for data centres has exploded, we have seen the development of the hyperscale data centre which is a multi-storey purpose-built product in the commercial property market.

What is a hyperscale Data Centre?

The hyperscale data centre is a business-critical facility designed to efficiently support robust, scalable applications. They are often associated with big data-producing companies such as IBM, Google and Amazon.

The buildings provide a much higher density of data storage across a high site cover for maximum use of space, which can span from 100,000 sq ft+ over multiple floors.

And whilst the specification of the buildings has changed, what the landlord needs to provide for the occupier has not.

Developers and landlords are essentially providing occupiers with a base shell, and it is the operator who brings the power and connectivity to the site.

If a landlord wants to build for data centre use today, they have to ensure that the necessary power is available.

Next Generation: What does the future hold?

With the needs of occupiers evolving so rapidly, to date, data centre design has evolved quickly, without any great consistency.

As artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and data requirements explode, now is the time to plan the next generation data centre to ensure we are on the supply front foot.

But what can we learn from third generation design and potential occupier needs in the future? What does ‘good’ look like for the next generation of Data Centre?

David Barden, Regional Managing Partner (Thames Valley), Vail Williams LLP.
Headshot photo of David Barden

Philanthropic Data Centres

Data centres have come a long way from their war-time roots, built essentially to protect and benefit our communities through intelligence gathering.

It would seem fitting, therefore, if the next generation of data centre does the same, perhaps through more of a focus on sustainable design.

So, could we see more philanthropic data centres which feed into the local communities that surround them?

In some areas, this is already happening, including in West London where The Department of Energy’s Green Heat Network Fund (GHNF) has funded the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC), enabling them to harness waste heat to heat some 10,000 homes.

In Lincolnshire, a planning application has just gone in to North Lincolnshire Council for the development of a £3bn data centre at Humber Tech Park in Lincolnshire. The 278,000 sq m data centre campus could capture waste heat for potential use in a similar district heating system.

Meanwhile, in a first for Google, they have just announced (May) that they plan to grapple with the environmental impact of their AI ambitions by reusing heat from an expanding Data Centre in Finland to warm nearby homes, schools and public buildings.

Whatever the next generation of data centre delivers, we will continue to see its whirlwind evolution sweep the UK. The challenge for landlords will be keeping up with demand through sufficient and sustainable supply.

Vail Williams has been active in the fast-evolving Data Centre market since 2011, acting predominantly for the landlords who own these unique assets, advising on market rents.

For help and support with your data centre requirements, from development viability and planning or energy and sustainability advice, to project management, lease advice and agency expertise.