The decision by An Bord Pleanála to grant approval for Apple to proceed with a large data centre in Co Galway is an important stepping stone in Ireland’s industrial economic strategy.
That might sound like a dramatic suggestion but it reflects the fast changing definition of industry, especially for us in the developed world where a transition from traditional manufacturing activity towards sectors that have phenomenal growth potential is underway.
In the past, it may have been physical goods that defined the prowess of any economy but, increasingly, it is virtual factories that matter most. Having the capability, scale, and security to manage unprecedented volumes of data lies at the heart of Ireland’s economic future.
Within that data, it is possible to explore global marketplaces like never before.
Apple is a great example of how all this works. Its platforms exist only because they facilitate an enormous amount of communication and transactions across the Internet.
Having a massive data centre that can accommodate existing and projected levels of information and numbers is strategically important to it.
Ireland is, relatively, a safe and stable environment in which to locate such a resource. It is also in a weather zone that is cool and wet, valuable attributes when managing high energy consumers such as data centres.
Other major corporations are leveraging Ireland’s skills too. Amazon, the global online retailer, uses Ireland as a base for its data centres.
This trend of investment is, if anything, primed to accelerate in the future and could well be assisted by the Brexit vote.
Until now, data centres operating in Ireland could move data through and into the UK without any concerns about that data’s status within the single European economic market.
This can no longer be taken for granted as, one way or another, relationships between the UK and EU economies are set to change and that will influence how all markets, including that for data, will operate.
Correspondingly, companies that are planning to store and move large amounts of critical data will assess Ireland from a number of valuable perspectives.
To encourage and accommodate such thinking Ireland must equip itself with the new world infrastructure that helps these companies manage enormous volumes of data around the world.
That infrastructure has to include energy, telecom technology and high speed/high volume fibre optic cables that facilitate data in and out of Ireland.
We must assume that this data will flow to and from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific regions.
Ensuring private and public investment is provided to underpin such an opportunity should be a high priority agenda point across Government and relevant agencies including the IDA.
Direct employment in these data centres is modest but valuable. The €850m Apple project, as an example, will employ 300 during construction and a further 150 when operating fully.
However, it is all the other stuff that hangs off large amounts of data where the rich economic benefits can apply.
Apple manufactures products in Ireland that depend on reliable and secure data. It has teams of software engineers who develop products that can operate around data.
A multitude of other companies use the web and Apple-like products and services to market and sell their products which, one way or another, touch data centres.
All of that giant eco-system can feed off the data centres that Ireland should establish world leadership in hosting, enabling and scaling.
I’d be surprised if we do not hear about more data centres being created in Ireland. They also are not dependent on large populous conurbations to thrive in.
Indeed, regional locations with relatively inexpensive land that is remote from large cities probably suits such installations best.
That probably explains why Athenry was attractive to Apple and may surface other parts of rural Ireland for similar levels of attention. These data centres can form part of the solution to rebooting Ireland outside the Pale.
Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.
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