The Asia Pacific (APAC) data centre industry is undergoing a period of unprecedented growth. Countries like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines - all of which find themselves with large, growing populations and a lack of digital infrastructure - are racing to digitalise fast.
“India's a really interesting market at the moment. There are over 1.3 billion people, and the amount of digitalisation happening there is staggering; the number of people that are getting connected, and the number of people who have yet to be connected, is significant,” says John Rippingale, MEA & APAC Director for the newly re-branded and relaunched Sudlows Consulting. “Earlier this year, the total data centre capacity that was live in India was roughly 400 MW. We currently have over 330 MW at varying stages of development, from concept to detail design and commissioning. Sudlows in isolation is contributing to almost doubling the country's data centre capacity, let alone other consultants who are active in the market - who I’d imagine are dealing with a similar number of projects to us. And that's still not enough to satisfy the demand.”
The Sudlows that people are familiar with and know in the UK and Europe is a niche design and build company working primarily in critical infrastructure that, John explains, “predominantly designs and builds data centre facilities that go up to about 10 MW of IT Load.” Just as the data centre industry has radically evolved over the past five years, Sudlows too is growing in the direction of the highest demand. Over the past few years, John explains, that demand has pulled the company inexorably in the direction of MEA and APAC.
Rippingale joined the company in late 2014 to take a leading role in setting up Sudlows’ first international office in Dubai. Roughly two years later, growing demand from Sudlows’ clients in the UK prompted the company to expand still further into India, where the number of hyperscale projects was just beginning to explode. Now, in 2021, Sudlows Consulting is looking further east. “After the success of our India office, the progression into the rest of APAC was quite a natural one. We were looking to expand further into central APAC, and Singapore was an obvious choice for our next office,” John explains, adding that “A lot of the organisations we work for in India have their head offices in Singapore.” While restrictions on new data centre builds remain in place throughout Singapore, Sudlows Consultings’ new office will, John continues, be a staging ground for further growth throughout Central and Southeast Asia. “We're looking beyond Singapore into some of the surrounding markets where there's absolutely massive growth in demand for digital services and infrastructure - not to mention all the hyperscalers setting up new cloud regions.”
The Contractor’s Consultancy
Sudlows Consulting is “an inch wide and a mile deep”, John explains. Outside of the UK, the company is a dedicated, full-stack, full-lifecycle consulting and professional services provider to some of the world’s biggest data centre operators - and the work they attract speaks for itself.
“Between Dubai and India, we have over 500 MW of projects, and we're working with pretty much every company in the top right of the Gartner Magic Quadrant for our industry,” says John.
One of the key reasons behind Sudlows’ success in the UAE, India, and beyond is the level of intersectional expertise and holistic understanding that it cultivates across its teams. “It's really important that our people have a holistic understanding of how all the elements of the business work. If you've got commissioning experience, it's going to make you a better designer because you understand the whole process from start to finish, not just your own little silo,” John explains. “We move people around the business and we end up with people who've been design engineers for five years telling us that they actually really like and now prefer commissioning.”
As a result, he continues, designers pick up tricks of the trade from commissioners, people working on projects have a deeper understanding of the intent behind designs - not to mention how to execute them - and the entire team ends up having a flexible, dynamic approach that translates directly into benefits for the client.
“We're known as the contractor's consultancy out here because we come from a contracting background, which means we're better equipped to work with contractors, be flexible, and not just rigidly stick to our initial designs when something poses a problem,” John explains. “It's all about making the project work. And data centre projects have really aggressive timelines, because the client wants the site to go live as soon as possible - because that's when the facility can start generating revenue for them.”
By applying this approach to the full end-to-end lifecycle of a data centre project, Sudlows has established itself as an extremely versatile organisation in the UAE and India. “We can be with the client throughout the whole lifecycle of a project,” adds John. “Even if we're not the lead consultant on a project, there are still lots of different stages where we can get involved and help support the client by adding value to the project.”
India: Building with the Boom
Nowhere is the tremendous growth that Rippingale describes more apparent than in India, where Sudlows Consulting has been active for several years now. It was in 2017, John recalls, that the Middle East operations he had spent two years working hard to build “really started to take off.”
“We got invited to more projects, started to win more bids, and forged some strong alliances with contractors and clients in the market,” he says. “Around that time, our UK office did some work with a global developer whose Indian team really liked what we did. They asked if we could come over and do some peer review work for them on a big project out there.” Rippingale took on the account, met with the company’s CEO and Indian team, and “what started off as a small peer review package turned into Sudlows doing the mechanical design, the testing, and commissioning for that project,” John says. “They said they really loved what we do, loved our experience and focus on the A-to-Z of data centres, and said they wanted to give us more work if we could make the commitment to opening an office in India.” Fast forward to the end of last year, and Sudlows was working on approximately 250 MW worth of projects as the lead consultancy with that single developer. “We're working on some of the biggest projects in India right now, which I am extremely proud of but equally aware of the gravity of what we are doing and the trust put in us by our clients,” adds John.
In the UAE - a place which John describes as “heaven for engineers” where people like him are “encouraged to dream bigger” - Sudlows Consulting’s largest data centre project has a capacity of 16 MW IT Load. In India, he says, “we're working on 50 MW single buildings as well as campus projects with capacities of 250 MW or higher. And we're just one consultancy. There are other successful firms working in the market, there are a lot of new players moving into the market; despite all this, we just can't build sites fast enough to meet demand.”
A typical data centre project in India, John explains, is a vertical build of between six and 10 floors which progresses from the concept stage to fully operational in between 22 and 26 months. “At the beginning of that two-year period, the demand is already outstripping the supply. Even if everyone decides to build to meet that present demand, by the time those projects are live two years later, the demand has already grown again,” he laughs. “The industry just can’t bring new facilities online fast enough.”
The prospect of tackling bigger projects in smaller amounts of time was one that John admits he definitely found exciting. “Land really is at a premium, so everything is being built at least eight floors tall now and we're heading for eleven floors becoming the new standard,” he explains. “It can be quite a mind-boggling thing to fit bigger and bigger, denser and denser data centres into these buildings that are getting taller and taller, all while using as little space as possible for all your auxiliary functions. And then you have all the different demands of the customers. It's really challenging, but it's exciting putting 30 MW of power in a building. You go back 30 years and you'd struggle to find 30 MW of power across the whole of some cities.”
Moving East with the Demand
When I ask most people about the future of their industries, they’re usually quick to throw around phrases like “the future is bright” or “the opportunities are boundless,” or “greater value for our shareholders.” When I put the question to John, he pauses for a moment, frowning slightly. When he does respond, he seems determined to frame his answer carefully. He’s excited for the future, to be sure, but he’s also very cognizant that every reward has its risks.
“The future is going to be challenging for everyone in the sector. It's going to be good, but it's definitely going to be a challenge as demand grows, time frames get shorter, sustainability gets more important, and skills are in shorter and shorter supply,” he says, adding that the international business’ rebranding into Sudlows Consulting is an important step towards “reinforcing to our clients that Sudlows Consulting is a fully-fledged, full-stack data centre consultancy,” capable of taking on any of the challenges that lie ahead.
“The first challenge now is getting the Singapore office up and running, which has been hampered by travel restrictions,” adds John, “but the biggest challenge is still going to be getting the right people, which COVID-19 also isn't making any easier.”
However big the hurdles facing the entire industry at this pivotal moment in time, Sudlows Consulting is remarkably well equipped to capitalise on this unique opportunity. “Across the whole region (APAC) there's about 2.3 GW of data centre capacity active right now. That's going to double over the next three to five years. Even if every data centre building is 50 MW, that's still almost another 50 projects,” he says. “The demand is so much bigger than the supply, and that's just based on predictions; over the last few years, growth predictions have consistently turned out to be on the conservative side, so who knows how big things are going to get, and how fast it's going to happen.”
When it comes to competing in this world of unprecedented demand, Rippingale is confident that “Our specialist knowledge is going to stand us in good stead at a time when there are a lot of other players trying to get into this industry - largely because, outside of the data centre sector, the markets aren't doing so well.”
He reflects: “Just because you're an established general MEP consultancy and have one person in your organisation who knows about data centres, that doesn't really qualify you to be a data centre consultancy or expert. The reason we can deliver top level work is because we've got experienced, top-tier talent. There’s a saying in the Middle East that, if you want good bread, you should be ‘giving your bread dough to the baker,’ which means always go to the expert.”