Big Interview

The Gulf, and beyond

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Data centre pioneer Tim Bawtree tells Alan Burkitt-Gray that the start-up Quantum Switch is expanding across the Middle East and into new markets.

Quantum Switch went live with its first data centre in Qatar after four years working on the concept and “three years working properly”, says its founder and chief executive Tim Bawtree.

“It’s 6MW, on the outskirts of Doha, and it has the capacity to double up,” Bawtree says. “And 14km away there’s a second one, 4MW, due to open in September 2022.” So who’s the client? “Not sure I’m allowed to say,” says Bawtree. “It’s one of the hyperscalers. I think I’d get into trouble if I say.”

Quantum Switch has also built two 9MW data centres in Saudi Arabia for the same unnameable client. “And we’ve bought a building in Dubai and we’re converting that for the same client,” Bawtree says, adding that the building is 40,000 square metres, “but we’ve another 23,000 sq metres on the same campus”.

The plan for the Dubai site, which goes live in September 2023, is to start at 6MW and then expand to 21MW. Unlike the other sites Bawtree has mentioned, this one is not for the same hyperscaler. It “is client-driven”, he says, “but not restricted to a single client”.

Data centre pioneer

Bawtree is a true veteran of the data centre industry, beginning his career in 1998 as a co-founder of London Switch, which became Global Switch. Its site was the former printing works of the Financial Times in east London, which is now called East India Dock House. It’s an icon of late 20th century architecture, and English Heritage lists it as of architectural importance, calling it “an impressive and characteristic example of high-tech architecture … a streamlined and clean-lined building that boldly expresses the building’s structural system and internal function”.

Stripped of its printing machinery that was visible to commuters driving home to Essex, the building became a carrier hotel, before London Switch moved in. “We rolled [London Switch] out very quickly,” says Bawtree. Once this was done, he moved onto his next role.

And two decades later, he co-founded Quantum Switch.

Quantum vogue

There is an emerging fashion in data centre companies to put “quantum” in their name, as if to imply that the company uses quantum physics in its operations. In a sense, they all do, as every semiconductor on every chip in every data centre relies on quantum physics. But that is not the point. Adding “quantum” to a company name gives some zing – an impression of jet-age, jet-pack modernity.

I used to think Josh Snowhorn’s Quantum Loophole originated this trend. Snowhorn left EdgeMicro in mid-2019 and joined the well-funded start-up that September which built a giant data centre campus in Maryland. But Bawtree was first, as Quantum Switch was incorporated on 29 January 2018, and he was a director from day one. Beating Snowhorn by more than 18 months is a good achievement.

(Incidentally, records at Companies House, the registrar of companies for England and Wales, shows there are 3,236 companies with “quantum” in their name. They include Quantum Concierge Services and Quantum Corporate Entertainment. Enough already!)

So why did Bawtree use the word “quantum” in his new company’s name, I ask. “It’s a heavy engineering business, but [it reflects] the quantum leaps we’ve made,” he replies. “Every time we make something, people want more of it, but cheaper. We think it’s a quantum leap from 23 years ago.”

He then muses on how prices have plummeted over that time. “Whisper it, but I once sold a 64kbps line to Citibank for £64,000 a year,” he recalls.

Heavy engineering

While Google will turn up the names of many Bawtrees in the sciences, Tim Bawtree says he always “struggled with academic work” and left school at 18. But he has always been entranced by technology.

“My father was a physicist, who worked at Lloyd’s insurance as a partner,” he says. “I’m a tech geek, really.” Quantum Switch is focused on designing, building and operating of data centres in emerging markets. Its purpose is to provide high-specification, sustainable facilities that will attract hyperscale clients – not just to increase provision and quality of cloud and digital services in these regions, but also to offer high value, skilled job opportunities.

When we spoke in the summer, Quantum Switch was “in the middle of a very big fund-raising exercise”, designed to raise US$4 billion, Bawtree informed me. He expected it to close in August, but at the time of writing, talks were still going on, “after an approach”.

Bawtree would not provide details, only saying that the approacher was “not a traditional data centre investor” but had “a big bang approach to growth”.

Gulf and beyond

Currently, Quantum Switch is focused on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, which is based in Saudi Arabia and includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE as members. The company’s funding is coming from Doha Venture Capital, which Bawtree says “reports to the state” – Qatar, in this case.

Quantum Switch also has a joint venture with Tamasuk, a Saudi Arabian infrastructure development and investment company, to build 60MW of data centre capacity every year for next five years, and a partnership with CNet Training to develop data centre technical and management skills among more than 100 people across the GCC.

“We’re very infrastructure-oriented,” says Bawtree, musing on the 170MW wind and solar power installed for his company’s facilities, which has “another 100MW in construction”.

Bawtree’s timeline shows that most of the development work for these projects was carried out during the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I never met my site manager until six months ago,” he says.

“I never saw the land or met the funders.” Instead, he oversaw things through “wheels within wheels”, working through on-the-spot contacts to line up funding from high net worth individuals. He mentions the Dubai office of law firm Gateley in particular. (A look at the contact page of Gateley’s website shows Dubai nestled among the firm’s 20 other offices, all of which in the UK.)

Beyond the Gulf

The next stage of Bawtree’s strategy – which he says will happen with or without the potential investment – is to expand Quantum Switch beyond the GCC. Global site searches are under way. “We’re trying to move into a more proactive state,” he says.

According to Quantum Switch’s website, it has nine locations across the Middle East, and it is developing four locations across Africa, six in Europe, four in India, four in Australasia, and six in south-east Asia.

Among the challenges facing Quantum Switch in the GCC and elsewhere are finding suitable sites that have access, power and connectivity. Hence the need for Quantum Switch’s links with solar energy farms.

“We’ve tried to be as renewable as possible,” says Bawtree. “It’s a considerable part of what hyperscalers will need in the future.”

The CEO did not say it, but hyperscalers have made promises about their environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards.

“We need to find a balance. People are looking to audit where the power is coming from,” says Bawtree. “Hyper-scalers and content providers are under a lot of pressure to provide sustainable solutions. In my opinion, it’ll be mandatory to meet a minimum requirement. You’ll see hyperscalers setting the standard.”

Bawtree believes the “big six or seven” consumers of electricity are already working on potential standards.

“You’ll see it first in North America, and then across other markets,” he says. “The new energy markets will focus [on clean energy]. Renewables and sustainability are one element. Supplying is another.”

He continues: “You’re also going to see an education process. There are resourcing challenges: do you hire locals or bring in expats? All these are the challenges that emerging markets bring.”

Countries “all want cloud capacity”, he says, adding that Saudi Arabia is one of those taking a lead in hiring locals to staff data centres, as it has a “Saudi-isation” policy that requires operators to train local staff.

“We’re trying to use our data centres as training grounds,” Bawtree says, taking people directly from university or even those without university educations.

While there are some areas where Bawtree is not looking to expand into (“None of the Nordics,” he says, briskly), he is not excluding Europe entirely.

“We’re concentrating on southern Europe,” he says. “It’s getting there and getting ourselves established. We’re taking what we’ve learned from the GCC and applying to other emerging markets.”

I could not draw him into giving specific details, but he did describe his company’s approach to expansion.

“What we’re focused on is standardisation of the supply chain. Clients have a particular way of doing things,” Bawtree says. “Data centres will look and feel the same. Walk through the front door and you’ll know where everything is.”

A Roman way

It is a bit like ancient Rome’s army camps, I suggest. From Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, to Libya in North Africa and Syria in the Middle East, their camps were always the same shape and their granaries, stables, barracks and officers’ quarters were always in the same places.

“The only difference with data centres is where you plug into the grid and into renewable energy,” says Bawtree.

“We’ll be supporting kit to maximise energy efficiency. There, data centres in Saudi Arabia will be different from São Paulo and Lisbon.”