nLighten: A step change in edge data centres

nLighten: A step change in edge data centres

Harro Beusker_CEO nLighten.jpg

Capacity's Natalie Bannerman speaks to nLighten's Harro Beusker and Chad McCarthy on the company's sustainability-first mission, its use of AI technology and is approach to talent and skills.

Close. coupled. connected. Meet nLigthen the digital infrastructure and portfolio company of I Squared Capital.

With edge data centres as its main export and sustainability at its core, nLighten is working towards its goal of having a pan-European presence in all major cities and providing access to low latency services and proximity to end users across Europe.

Founded in 2021, the nLighten senior management team reads like the who's who of the data centre sector. With founder and CEO Harro Beusker and, founder and CTO Chad McCarthy both having held tenures at the likes of Equinix and Interxion, a Digital Realty Company, its clear that nLighten has both the skills and experience to deliver on its ambitions.

Speaking on its close, couple and connected ethos, Beusker (pictured above) explains, when its comes to close, "we saw that there was an emerging need for a new type of data centre".

Earlier on only retail data centres existed back in the late 90's, by 2015 we saw the emergence of hyperscale data centre facilities, both of which were mainly located in large cities.

"We asked ourselves, why is almost 50% of the total capacity in data centres concentrated in places like Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Paris? That was the start for us. We thought let's go closer to the customer," says Beusker.

"Our ambition is to have data centres within a one hour to two-hour drive of every business in Europe."

The coupled part the mantra reflects that while you have data centres that are close, they also need to be sustainable or ideally carbon-free.

"We recognised the need for a step change in how the data centre interacts with the energy transition. We need to make data centres more sustainable."

Greening the edge

One example of this type of sustainability is through heat reuse, which is essentially the process of using the heat created by data centres to heat homes, business or other facilities that need it.

nLighten signed a Letter of Intent with the City of Eschborn and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in March 2023, on the heat reuse from the nLighten data centre in Eschborn.

The heat recovered heat from the electronic data processing (EDP) systems in nLighten's Eschborn data centre will serve as district heating for the Wiesenbad and the Eschborn property of the government owned GIZ GmbH, replacing existing heat generation systems.

Together nLighten and the City of Eschborn will build a supply line roughly 800m in length from the nLighten data centre to the Wiesenbad, which will transport the hot water.

Part of this includes a project in Eschborn where nLighten uses the heat from its servers in its data centre and uses that heat to warm the local swimming pool.

Elaborating on the project, McCarthy says that such projects are much easier for a distributed edge provider like nLighten which is embedded into the local community.

"We're actually very close to that swimming pool complex," he says. "That wouldn't be the case if we were located where the other Frankfurt data centres are most concentrated. There's too many other data centres nearby and there's no real community heating requirements."

Heat Reuse Project Eschborn_2.JPG
Harro Beusker and Chad McCarthy at the Letter of Intent signing for the Heat Reuse project in Eschborn

Powering facilities

Looking at both the networks and the energy infrastructure at the same time mean that in planning, while they build the system to operate the data centre internally, the company also keeps an eye out for what the requirement is of the energy infrastructure around it, "that leads us to this temperature differential planning", explains McCarthy.

Lastly, the connected part of its mission, is to deliver greater connectivity to and between sites, that is low-latency and provides access to a rich carrier-neutral ecosystem.

Despite the densification of created by being closer to the user, McCarthy says is easier in terms of sustainability.

"It's easier because data centres have become distributed and smaller, so you're at a lower connection voltage. You're more likely to find extra capacity at 10,000 volts than if you're trying to make 110 or 120 kilovolt connections," he says.

At the same time, while power shortages continue to be a problem, he says it's less of a problem If you're looking for less power and smaller pockets, and you're distributing that burden over the over the country.

"It far easier to get 3MW near Newbury, than to get hold of 50MW in Frankfurt," agrees Beusker.

With the acquisition of 10 carrier data centre sites from its sister company Exa Infrastructure, there is capacity at these facilities that can used by nLighten but being 20-years old, Beusker says they need a complete refurbishment and aligning with its sustainable blueprint.

"These data centres are great for us because they have fibre, they have power, they have the necessary permits to run as a data centre, but most importantly for us they are already connected," he adds.

Given that there's already between six to ten carriers located at the data centres, Beusker says, "we've acquired 10 data centres which we have selected on the basis of their location and a couple of other factors".

This June nLighten acquired Euclyde Data Centers (Euclyde), a French regional platform with six, carrier-neutral data centres.

With the addition of nLighten's existing operations in Germany, the acquisition of Euclyde and its footprint in Sophia Antipolis, Lyon, Strasbourg, Besançon and Paris, establishes the nLighten platform in two of Europe's core data centre markets.

"We are trying to create this new asset class of data centres, the edge data centres and every signal that we get from the market confirms that that there is demand, that there are possibilities and while has its own challenges there is a lot of potential."

AI and tech

As for the demands placed on edge networks, it continues to be rooted in content and 5G, due to the quality of the service needed, latency required and performance. but what about the new kid on the block, AI?

"We're seeing a particular form of AI, which is distributed machine learning or online learning, which is like a federated learning model where they learn local markets and local regions, and then they federate that with us with a central model elsewhere," explains McCarthy (pictured below).

Chad McCarthy_CTO nLighten.jpg

"We don't think that the large hyperscale data centres are coming to an end, its very much an active market. We're talking about a change in data usage and a change in where data is used, which leads to different infrastructure requirements."

Expanding on this he says that nLighten has decoupled the critical function of the data centre from an AI layer which optimises operations on top.

"The plant runs itself in a critically reliable fashion and that means that we can overlay machine learning and AI technologies for energy efficiency, improvements in optimising of distributing schemes, over the top and it doesn't compromise the critical function," says McCarthy.

Because of its community edge-based approach it means that nLighten must look locally for its talent, which is an opportunity for those who want to enter the space outside of the big major cities.

"If you take Germany for example, everything is concentrated in Frankfurt. That has two effects, one is that people applying for jobs in our industry are expecting that they will need to move to Frankfurt. Whereas we on the other hand are saying, no we want you to stay in Dusseldorf, Leipzig, or Stuttgart."

At the same time because everything is so concentrated to places like Frankfurt, it makes the competition for candidates extremely fierce and also pushes up costs.

Beusker's approach is that 30-40% of nLighten's people need to be experienced otherwise it simply won’t work and will put them at a competitive disadvantage.

However, he adds, "we believe that if we have 40% experienced people, we can hire 60% good people, with competent backgrounds, that we will learn the data centre profession and bring them into the data centre world. That is what we are trying to do right now."

While this hiring for attitude and aptitude vs experience approach is not the easiest or quickest route, it is the most rewarding and one which nLighten has fully committed itself to.

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