Data centers are a crucial driver of our digitalized economy, which has been accelerated by the exponential growth in demand for data center based services during the pandemic. Demand is growing not just in the established Tier 1 regions which denote Europe’s five major data center markets, but increasingly in the less well established Tier 2 and Tier 3 regions with lower population densities where the necessary infrastructure is becoming available at potentially lower costs. The surge in demand for digital services has led to a boom in data center investment and M&A activity. Investors are falling over themselves to engage in a relatively new but currently lucrative asset class.
Tim Smith is Business Director for Data Centers at Huawei UK.
The last two years serve as a perfect illustration of the two main challenges data centers are currently facing. The pandemic, for one, supercharged our demand for digital services, all of which are based in data centers of some description and improved digital connectivity as businesses around the world accelerated their digitalization strategies, and working from home became the default mode for many employees.
Secondly, consumers and investors alike have ramped up the pressure on businesses to become more energy efficient as the urgency of the climate crisis is more apparent than ever. This is highly relevant for data centers, which are feeling the heat of consumers’ increased environmental awareness and governments’ intentions to respond. The need to act on the climate crisis is certainly one of the main challenges data center operators are facing, as McKinsey research shows that data centers have been known to emit a whopping 80 megatons of CO2 a year. It should be pointed out though that it is the digital services hosted within the data centers that utilize the energy. Data centers merely impose a greater or lesser degree of overhead on the energy used and converted to heat. These are the same digital services on which we are now so dependent in our business and social life, and which we are all demanding more of. Therefore, the true energy issue is the IT load supported by data centers.
Driving innovation within data centers
Performance demands and sustainability pressures are already driving innovation across the data center industry, with alternative energy sources such as hydrogen produced by geothermal energy, standby generators using Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) such as is being done by Kao Data in Harlow, Fuel Cells, innovative cooling methods such as direct liquid cooling (including immersive cooling), and the deployment of knowledge based management systems incorporating Machine Learning and deep Analytics.
These innovations may all reduce the environmental impact, but true data center energy efficiency is dependent on improvements in IT systems and software efficiency, the platforms upon which our digital services sit.
Smart systems already play a crucial role in improving the management of data centers, including the critical data center cooling component, potentially a significant consumer of energy in a data center if not designed and managed correctly. Cooling solutions powered by smart systems such as Huawei’s iCooling enable data centers to learn to save power by integrating big data and optimizing cooling and power efficiency. The increased integration of smart management tools used in data center processes is an important step, as the traditional, manual systems can no longer keep up with rapidly changing demands.
Looking ahead – the future of data center innovation
Increases in available connectivity, particularly those fueled by significant submarine cable deployments have already paved the way for a number of ways in which data center operations might evolve in the coming years.
Improvements to the IT load
The rise in demand for high-performance data centers will put increased pressure on the IT load within data centers, to improve in performance and energy efficiency. The breakdown of Moore’s Law is significant in this respect, so new materials and chip designs are essential to achieve these performance and energy efficiency goals and to keep up with the demand growth in a sustainable manner.
Innovation of the IT equipment within data centers is already being researched and trialed.
Intelligent systems improving data center management and operations
Advances in data center management solutions will increasingly open up new ways to improve management and maintenance. As more and more remote devices are installed, data volumes will grow requiring local aggregation and some level of pre-processing to be applied. This will increasingly be performed by ‘Edge’ data centers providing proximal compute and storage with low latency network links. The role of the traditional core data center will not go away though as these will act as hubs to the remote and typically smaller ‘Edge’ sites. This is where the deep analytics will be performed on disparate data sets to turn lakes of data into useable information.
Increasing Edge deployment and adoption
Edge is not a new technology or even a new idea. Content Distribution Network (CDN) have existed since the mid-1990s. Rather, Edge is a deployment strategy and comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some Edge deployments are multiple Megawatts in size and are driven by factors such as data sovereignty requirements or regulation and taxation as well as latency etc. 5G and Edge deployments are not co-dependent though. Edge sites are typically smaller and more remote than traditional data centers. Yet the reliability levels and SLAs expected often remain similar to traditional sites. This is leading to new methods of operation including new remote management techniques and tool sets more suited to geographically remote unmanned sites. This in turn will influence traditional data center operations and ways of thinking.
Accelerated by our increased dependence on digital services, the data center sector has already transformed significantly to enable the digital infrastructures needed. The increased demand for digital services and the climate crisis pose challenges, but innovative technologies paint a bright future for the future of the data center industry.
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