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How Digital Transformation in ASEAN is Driving Data Centre Efficiency

Rio Jon Piter Silitonga, Vu Trong Duc Anh
28 March 2024

Across Southeast Asia, a digital revolution is transforming the region’s economies rapidly. As of 2022, ASEAN has 460 million Internet users, with 100 million joining in the last three years alone. As ten countries converge on the digital plane, this transformation is reshaping everything from bustling e-commerce marketplaces to streamlined e-governmental services and is acting as a catalyst for the bloc’s integration. At the centre of this transformation are data centres, the “powerhouse” for digital life. Yet, as they expand across the region to meet soaring demand, the urgency for energy-efficient operations has never been more critical as data centre’s intense energy consumption presents a monumental challenge for sustainable digital infrastructure for the region. 

The digital landscape of the ASEAN region is evolving remarkably. As demonstrated by initiatives such as the under-negotiating ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA), this transformation is not merely a shift but an important pillar for the economic and social integration of ASEAN. It is estimated that the region’s digital ecosystem could grow from US$300 billion to nearly US$1 trillion by the year 2030. 

The COVID-19 pandemic served as an unexpected catalyst for this digital acceleration, as the demand for remote work, online education, digital entertainment, e-commerce, and online banking surged. This shift has underscored the urgency for enhanced digital services to assist ASEAN economies in bouncing back swiftly and robustly. In response to these demands, ASEAN member states have commenced negotiations on the DEFA, a visionary plan aimed at streamlining digital trade and cross-border e-commerce by standardising electronic documents, processes to ensure the seamless flow of digital goods and services in the region. 

In the midst of this digital age transformation, data centres play a pivotal role, as they act as the foundational infrastructure, similar to the utility grids and transportation networks of the industrial age. These establishments are the epicentres of data storage, management, and distribution, enabling services that are integral to the functioning of e-commerce platforms, smart cities, and beyond. By facilitating secure and instantaneous access to data for commercial transactions and processing colossal data volumes, data centres ensure the seamless flow of information that powers our modern life. 

The expansion of data centres across ASEAN, crucial for digital development, has also led to heightened attention to their energy use and efficiency. This is particularly true in Singapore and Malaysia, which not only host most of these but have also implemented specific standards and regulations to ensure data centre efficiency. 

In Singapore, data centres accounted for about 7% of the nation’s total electricity consumption in 2020. With over 70 operational data centres as of January 2022, the country introduced a new standard in 2023 specifically designed to optimise energy efficiency in data centres, particularly considering tropical climates operation. The Singapore government also mandated that PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) for new data centres should be 1.3 and below 

In Malaysia, the data center market size stood at 66MW as of 2022, and it is anticipated to more than double by reaching 157MW by 2027. The “Specification for Green Data Centres”  serve as the standards guideline for energy efficiency within the sector, in which the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) recommends that the PUE should be 1.9 and below. 

In pursuing better energy efficiency for data centers, many novel strategies and technological innovations have emerged. Among these, advanced cooling systems and Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications have been shown as the industry’s best practices. 

Advanced cooling systems, such as Chassis-Level Precision Immersion Cooling, are revolutionising the way heat generated by data centres is dissipated. This technique, employed in solutions like the EcoStruxure, involves immersing electronic components directly in a non-conductive liquid coolant, which is different from traditional air or liquid cooling methods. Components including CPUs, GPUs, memory, and power supplies are submerged in a liquid that has better thermal conduction properties than air, allowing for efficient heat absorption and targeted cooling of high-density electronics. 

On the forefront of AI integration is iCooling system, an energy optimisation solution that leverages AI algorithms to analyse cooling systems, IT load, and environmental parameters. By modeling the data centre’s energy efficiency and deducing optimal settings, this technology enables dynamic adjustments, optimising equipment settings in real-time to reduce power consumption. For example, for a chilled water system, iCooling can optimise setpoints for chillers, pumps, cooling towers and other equipment based on the current operating conditions.   

However, the adoption of these cutting-edge technologies comes with concerns regarding their maturity and adaptability to tropical climates in ASEAN. Chassis-Level Precision Immersion Cooling and AI-driven solutions such as iCooling, while innovative, are still new to the market and thus lack extensive long-term reliability and performance data. The robustness of the supply chain is another concern, highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on global logistics. The availability of advanced components and special coolants is critical, and any disruptions could have a disruptive effect on data centre operations, especially in regions distant from manufacturing centres. 

The unique heat and humidity of tropical climates pose additional challenges. Although immersion cooling is comparatively less affected by ambient conditions, the efficiency of heat rejection systems that interact with the external environment, such as cooling towers, must be carefully evaluated.  

While new advanced technology for data centres can serve as catalysts for sustainable digital growth in ASEAN, the rollout of these technologies must, therefore, be approached with prudence and regional awareness. The establishment of pilot projects serves as a strategic bridge between innovation and practical application, allowing for the careful calibration of new technologies within ASEAN’s climate condition. These test beds enable the fine-tuning of systems ensuring they are not only effective but also resilient to the tropical conditions in the region. Furthermore, the harmonisation of standards and best practices is thus an important step in the region’s technological growth. By developing a standard set of guidelines, ASEAN can ensure that new data centre technologies are deployed in an effective and sustainable manner. This harmonisation effort would involve member states working together to share information and experiences, resulting in the development of a strong framework to support the region’s digital infrastructure.  

Such a system would not only solve urgent energy efficiency concerns but would also lay the groundwork for long-term data centre resilience and scalability. It would establish a clear standard for energy usage, cooling efficiency, and overall operational performance that are specific to the ASEAN setting. This, in turn, would allow for a more coherent and integrated digital economy, with optimal data center performance, contributing to the region’s worldwide competitiveness. 

These combined strategies align with the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation’s (APAEC) Phase II strategic aims of promoting an integrated and resilient energy environment across ASEAN. Working together, member states may develop a coordinated approach that not only promotes energy-efficient data centres but also ensures their effective integration into the region’s digital transformation.