For those of you who’ve never stepped foot inside a data centre, imagine it to be the digital footprint of a huge township – a tiny city within a megacity like Mumbai. A heavily guarded fortress of data, unlike anything you will have ever seen, processing an insane amount of data every single second, according to Sunil Gupta.
“If I have to give you some perspective, we have an average bandwidth of close to 1Tbps here,” Sunil Gupta told us, “And my monthly electricity bill easily crosses into eight figures, roughly making up 60 percent of this datacentre’s operational cost.”
Makes your average monthly internet and electricity bill feel infinitesimally small, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what you’ll experience when you learn more about data centres.
Popularly known as the ‘Datacentre Man of India,’ we met Sunil Gupta, CEO of Yotta, at the Yotta Datacentre Park on the outskirts of Mumbai. The Yotta NM1 Datacentre is huge in every aspect of its operation. The Yotta NM1 Datacentre has a power plant that can power 50,000 families, enough fuel to fill up 11,000 SUVs, 400 metric tonnes of cooling, enough CCTVs for 10 high-security facilities and one expensive piece of paper which certifies it as Asia’s largest Tier-IV datacentre. It’s almost impenetrable with a state-of-the-art seven layers of security cover enabled by technologies like: Under Vehicle Scanning System, Automatic Number Plate Recognition System, 1200 CCTVs and AI monitoring every inch of the facility and its perimeter.
In the heart of the datacentre, there are six dedicated server hall floors, each can house 1200 racks or up to 52-U with 1500 kg of load per sq metre. There are 7200 server racks in just one building inside the Yotta NM1, while an additional 30,000 racks are coming up soon in adjoining structures inside the datacentre park. The terrace has an MS-Grille platform with 34 chillers of 400 TR to serve as chilled water distribution plants. Hot water coming out of the server racks is usually at 28 degrees, which is chilled down to 15 degrees and recirculated for cooling the servers. And as Sunil Gupta himself confirmed, there are roughly 1 Tbps of data flowing in and out of the datacentre every single second, and the entire facility’s electricity consumption is in the range of crores of rupees per month. Our edited interview excerpts follow:
How would you explain a data centre to someone who has absolutely no idea about it?
Sunil Gupta: To put it very simply, knowingly or unknowingly we all are users of datacentres. If you connect to the Internet for doing anything, you are directly connecting to a data centre somewhere in the world. Whether you’re using WhatsApp or someone else using Instagram, Snapchat or booking a train ticket or cab on Uber, watching a film on Netflix or net banking on your bank’s app at this very moment. So all this data from our mobile or desktop goes through a 2G, 3G or 4G network provider’s node, from there all that information from your digital devices travels through a network of fibre-optic cables to get processed and stored in a place called the datacentre. Every digital transaction which we are doing in our personal or professional life today, through our mobile, desktop, laptop, or smart TV has only three components: a device, the network in between and the backend – that backend is nothing but the data centre.
I think now you understand that all of us are using data centres, one way or the other. Every moment the data we generate or consume online, it involves the datacentre to complete the feedback loop. Most of the online data we consumed in the past resided in datacentres outside our country, but due to the rise of digital work and digital habits in all aspects of our life, there’s a need to set up more datacentres in the country – just due to the sheer volume of data being generated, processed and consumed by local Indians and Indian companies. Because anything and everything is happening with an increased online and digital component, the size and scale of the infrastructure required at the backend to power the whole experience needs to grow exponentially.
How have data centres evolved in India?
Sunil Gupta: I remember a time when the whole of Indian online data, maybe due to lack of good quality datacentres, was hosted in foreign datacentres – mostly in the US. I’m talking about the 1990s and early 2000s when dial-up internet was making way for broadband, and cellular Internet connectivity of 2G and 3G had just started entering our lives. Soon, e-commerce started coming alive online and big companies started realising the need to have good data centres in India – to serve the local market, which was on the verge of a major upheaval.
Good data centres started popping up in India, as a result of the increased demand, and by 2013-2014 the sector had levelled up quite well. After the launch of 4G in India, and Reliance Jio’s disruptive effect on the entire nation’s data consumption needs, fibre-to-the-home services also started coming up in major Indian cities. Due to the Flipkart and Amazon phenomena and food delivery services like Zomato and Swiggy, people started getting more comfortable with buying goods and services online which fundamentally enhanced commerce. The combined effect of all this was that suddenly even cloud operators like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft Azure, realised that if they had to tap a big market like India, they cannot serve it from outside, that they need to create their own clouds in India. Cloud essentially still means some hardware and software functionality, which we give to the end customers to run their applications and that hardware-software ultimately still runs in a physical building, which is what is called a datacentre.
For the last six or seven years, we have seen this industry grow like crazy. If I talk about datacentre capacity in terms of MW (amount of power being consumed), that's how we measure our datacentre capacity. India’s data centre industry which was just about 200 MW in 2014 has already become almost 600 MW as we speak in a matter of seven years. Given the various digital market drivers, 5G is just around the corner, which will increase data download speeds anywhere from 50 to 100 times; with smart machines and the rise of smart cities, and connected driverless cars, all of this will generate massive amounts of data, requiring the setting up of more data centres to handle all that data processing traffic. With the data protection bill, the government will increasingly demand Indian data to reside inside Indian data centres, because of various geopolitical reasons. The Indian government is quite clear that the data centre capacity in India from its current 500-600 MW needs to possibly cross the 3000 MW mark in the next five years – of this, we at Yotta are preparing to deliver at least 1000 MW in the same timeframe. India’s data centre sector has already grown three times and we are talking about growing another 6-7 times in the next five-to-six years. So the data centre story of India has suddenly become very interesting, where Yotta is going to play an important role.
What kind of Indian online services are powered by Yotta’s data centre?
Sunil Gupta: There are many online things we use in our digital lives that we don't completely know where they come from, right? Because Yotta is still a B2B business, we may not be serving a consumer directly, but we serve those online companies who in turn are serving the end customer. I won’t be able to divulge names, of course, but for example: if you are using net banking online for money transfers or checking your bank balance, there’s a good chance that those banks are actually running out of Yotta’s data centre. We have a large Stock Exchange running in our data centre with increased data requirements since more Indians are getting into alternative modes of investment. There are many manufacturing companies, fintech companies, and healthcare companies running out of our data centre. We also have large hospitals as our clients. A media company creating dynamic content, cartoons and graphics uses our data centre’s special GPU-based power workstations.
E-commerce players and food delivery services are trying to increase the speed of delivery from same-day to under 30 mins and now even under 10 mins. This reduction in delivery time wouldn’t have been possible without increased processing speed of the request inside a data centre somewhere, I can guarantee you that.
Challenges of setting up and operating a data centre in India?
Sunil Gupta: Behind the obvious digitisation layer, there is an underlying infrastructure layer dealing with land procurement, getting multiple approvals and clearances, getting lots of power, storing a huge amount of fuel, getting environmental clearances, etc. Once these challenges are overcome, then we arrive at the data centre constructors and operators from an IT standpoint. The shortage of really high-skilled people, those who really understand the designing, engineering and operations of the data centre is very real. Having spent over 20 years in this business I can literally count the number of these highly-skilled people on my fingertips – and they won’t go into double digits, believe me. For an industry of this scale, which is supposed to become seven times bigger in the next five years, it’s a scary scenario.
One way we are trying to solve this high-skilled labour shortage facing the data centre sector in India is by hiring people from allied industries. So somebody may be working in the chemical industry or in a nuclear plant or having experience in sophisticated industry work, we actively hire them. We also have a program of taking on fresh graduates in a technical course and training them on the job here at Yotta.
Why is it necessary to have more data centres within India?
Sunil Gupta: A whole lot of innovation will happen at the mobile device level, at the sensor level, at the smart machine level, and there are a whole lot of startups and good companies who are doing work in this space. Very soon 5G is going to get started in India, where all the telecom operators will compete to provide great network connectivity across the country. As a result, data generated by Indians is expected to go through the roof over the next five years!
Hence, India needs to focus on the IT layer on the top of the datacentre which is represented by the cloud, which is primarily hosted by Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google’s Cloud. There’s a need to have more Indian cloud operators to offer Indian businesses more choices. We also have to be sensitive towards geopolitical situations around the world right now, where we see countries getting isolated because of their foreign policy or bordering countries – for example, the situation between India and China. Some of the Indian data which the Indian government feels is absolutely critical needs to be in Indian hands, comply with Indian law and should be processed and stored here in India and nowhere else. But doing so is easier said than done, because companies like Amazon and Google spend billions of dollars, building so much intelligence and core competency in this sector, but we definitely have to start somewhere and up our R&D spend to innovate around these gaps in the roadmap as efficiently as we can.