The demand for data centers continues to grow, pushed in part by the pandemic workplace, prodded along by internet-enabled TVs and other smart devices, and nudged even further by the changing shape and size of digital information. Slouches don’t last long in the tech industry, and all the players are racing to adapt to a changing landscape. As 2021 comes to a close, we look toward the new year for signs of how the data economy will satisfy its hungry consumers.
A Brief Look at the Present
2021 was a rebound year from 2020, when infrastructure spending was stifled by 10% due to an industry-wide cash flow shortage sparked by the pandemic. The demand was there. The money was not.
In a 2021 report on digital infrastructure, real estate analyst CBRE found that new data facilities broke ground at a 42% gain over the year prior, and data center providers made several major land purchases this year, readying themselves for the next phase of development. Northern Virginia and Dallas/Ft. Worth saw spectacular growth in inventory, exceeding 225% inventory expansion since 2015. Surprisingly, this nearly doubled the growth rate in Silicon Valley. However, data centers aren’t just trying to satisfy a few zip codes in Bay Area California. The United States is a hotbed of growth for the edge computing market, pulling data centers as close to consumption as possible.
Emerging Data Center Trends
While some parts of the world have slid back into lockdowns and remote work environments, others have resumed normal operations in person and on campus. The effect of the former is still catapulting change in how data reaches its consumers. Here are some of the ways Big Tech is trying to keep up.
From robots that automatically retrieve cold-storage data tapes, to roving security robots maintaining a safe perimeter around a facility, automation is coming to data centers—in many ways it’s already here. Some of the remote-work inertia generated by the pandemic has created an opening to introduce robotics into data centers, and few companies are as well equipped or motivated to experiment in that field than Big Tech.
Indeed, IBM experimented with Roomba vacuum cleaners, equipping the robot with sensors that would measure data center temperatures and humidity readings. AOL claimed several years ago to have created a small data center that ran completely without staffing. Google put industrial robots to work to automate the destruction of decommissioned hard drives at a rate faster than humans could do so.
As the scale of data centers increases, the total volume of hardware and software that needs to be managed will far outpace the capabilities of human staff. In the near term, robotics can pick up the slack and become another tool in a human’s kit. In the long term, a fully automated server center could operate at higher temperatures, reducing cooling and operational costs.
Hyperscale data centers have emerged to satisfy the big data needs of large enterprises, and cloud and hosting providers such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud. Unlike retail data centers, hyperscale centers typically house one client, which would explain why Amazon, Google, and Microsoft occupy 50% of the total hyperscale market. By focusing on the needs of a single client, data can be allocated across a facility in such a manner that higher-demand data with more intensive CPU activities can be environmentally zoned with appropriate temperature controls.
Workloads can also be more efficiently balanced across servers to displace heat production or more efficiently and reliably distribute energy. Don’t let the name fool you—these centers are not distinguished by their size. Instead, hyperscale data centers are defined by its client maximally using the facility’s floor space and resources.
Amazon made waves when it vertically integrated all the logistical components of its supply chain, from warehousing to trucking. Now it’s doing the same again, except with ones and zeros—building its own hyperscale data centers for its line of AWS products. And it’s far from alone, with a projected industry-wide growth in hyperscale construction through 2022, particularly in China.
“Going green” is more than an industry buzz slogan. Microsoft has set an aggressive sustainability initiative with the ultimate aim of becoming carbon negative by 2030. This will require a multi-faceted approach, examining everything from energy production to water usage. And while Microsoft is attempting to adopt a 100% reliability on renewable energy, that strategy simply cannot work without deep wells of energy storage on-site to hedge against fluctuations in wind and solar. Some data centers are already implementing such measures, by installing massive-capacity experimental batteries from companies such as Tesla. Some data center owners are more transparent than others about their environmental impacts, but many have adopted a forward-stance on working toward reducing harm and “going green.”
4. Edge Computing
Manufacturers, energy companies, electric vehicles, consumers, among many others are driving the increased demand for edge computing. In contrast to hyperscale data centers, providers will need to become smaller and more decentralized to serve the edge market.
Some companies, such as Dell, are taking this to the extreme, with the advent of Micro-Modular Data Centers (MMDCs). These are small, portable, fully self-contained data centers designed to serve the needs of one customer at a time. They often include their own cooling, power, and backup hardware, making them a turnkey solution to a company’s data center needs. Like any solution, MMDCs occupy a sweet spot of cost effectiveness for their use case, but technologies like these are bringing the edge ever closer.
Also read: Micro Data Centers are Evolving the Edge
5. Increased Security
For years, Washington D.C. has been warning government employees and other governments about the dangers of hardware-embedded threats to privacy and security. As cyber threats grow more pervasive, and attackers continue to target data centers—veritable treasure troves of information—these centers are feeling the heat and responding to it.
Google introduced chip-level security into its data centers several years ago, then open sourced the project in 2019 to deliver the same types of security measures to the industry at large. Dubbed Project OpenTitan, it aims to create maximal transparency and security at the chip level, along with additional features such as self-testing for memory tampering on every boot of the chip. Google has partnered with data giants such as Western Digital and Seagate to develop the standard and deploy the technology into 2022 and well beyond.
6. Healthy Competition
Tech is a sink or swim world, and few companies know how to swim as well as Intel. The CPU market for servers has historically belonged to chip manufacturers, but recent deals between AMD and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, give its primary competitor a bigger bite of the pie. The steady advancement of chip technology isn’t the only factor in this deal—much of it has to do with the relative availability of AMD hardware during a global chip shortage. But the AMD and Intel feud is a tale as old as time, and it will surely continue well into the future. Meanwhile, NVIDIA is making its own plays, venturing into the market with its first data center CPU, an ARM-based chip dubbed “Grace.” Of course, we’ll be well past 2022 before we get a sense of how the competition plays out.
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