The last few years have introduced unprecedented business conditions for every industry, but among the most heavily affected are cloud-based services that are run by the global network of data centers. The business model has changed to accept new realities and fulfill new obligations—and extrapolating this recent history into the near future is an uncertain exercise at best.
Nevertheless, it is of vital interest that we do gain as clear a perspective as possible—because more of the world depends on cloud services, and by extension, data center operations than ever before. If there’s one thing we know the future holds, it’s that our dependence on them is going to increase.
An unprecedented one-two-three punch
The challenge is that over recent years the baseline has continued to move. First, the world was rocked by global COVID-19 lockdowns and the overnight reality of hundreds of millions of people working and learning from home. This shift threw immense pressure onto data centers to handle high-bandwidth video and other cloud-based applications over a much more widely distributed area.
Then came the worldwide supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, making it hard for data centers to build out additional capacity because they couldn’t find critical components or the skilled people to install and run them.
And most recently, global inflation and spiking energy prices, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine, have forced companies and nations alike to further rearrange their supply chains and make adjustments to continue operating persistently elevated energy costs.
Note that these are just world events that aren’t even exclusive to the business of data centers. In addition, the growing social and commercial role of back-end data center processing and storage has presented just as many challenges.
Doing more, in more places, with less margin for error
Consider all the new applications that rely on capable, reliable data center support to operate. For instance, there is the mobile app ordering at your local restaurant, the high-speed robots in a warehouse picking your online order just minutes after you hit “Check Out” and even the driving assist-equipped vehicle in the next lane. The speed and volume of data being generated, processed and transported by these applications and countless others is growing exponentially. The world cannot afford downtime, no matter if the consequence is a delayed lunch order or compromising the full efficacy of a 5G-connected driving-assist system.
Low-latency 5G is unlocking the bandwidth—and just as important, the low latency—that many of these new and amazing applications require to work. All that gets piped to data centers, which are increasingly being moved to the edge of the network to shave those last few precious milliseconds off the response time reporter (RTR).
Energy efficiency will drive data center evolution in 2023
For all data center environments, efficiency is not so much a metric for profitability as it is a metric for survival. Whether a small to mid-sized multi-tenant data center or a vast cloud or hyperscale deployment, the intense, simultaneous pressures of demand and expenses—particularly energy expenses—will determine its future.
The bottom line is that data centers must increase the efficiency of their delivery of services, using fiber and edge-based infrastructure, as well as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). And at the same time, they must increase the efficiency of operations—and that means reducing energy use per unit of compute power.
Certainly, cost is the most obvious factor when weighing energy efficiency, but it’s by no means the only one. Consider how customers and investors are growing more attuned to how their corporate partners source and use their electricity. Some progressive metropolitan areas are telling data centers that, in addition to concerns about data centers’ appearance, noise and water use, their energy-hungry business is not wanted. And in some cases, the area lacks available electrical grid capacity to host them.
Going into 2023, where we are dreading headlines from Europe and elsewhere about rolling blackouts and insufficient heating, both regulatory and social opinions will only tilt further away from data center developers. That is why it is so urgent that energy efficiency takes top priority and data centers make those critical upgrades, such as:
- Converting storage to the most efficient media, based on access time
- Use detailed analytics to identify storage, compute, and power consolidation opportunities
- Deploy ultra-efficient UPS systems
- Re-evaluate the thermal limits of the center itself
- Consider colocation to share electrical and communications overhead
- Accounting for stress on existing electrical grid and moving to more sustainable power, localized to the data center
On a more strategic level, moving data centers to the edge of the network, connected by high-speed fiber, can improve energy efficiency as well as latency. Also, consider locations where there is access to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, hydro and nuclear.
For the largest cloud and hyperscale data centers, there is an opportunity to take advantage of localized power generation in various forms, to both power the data center, and if excess power is generated, provide back to the grid.
Efficiency flows downstream
While many may never appreciate the broader social and commercial impact a data center has on the world, it’s worth remembering how fast, robust data storage and processing can improve all of the most vital parts of our days—and indeed, our lives.
For instance, every day, the cloud-based services that data centers enable, help:
- Employees to connect with each other and work efficiently from their homes, office, or while traveling
- Farmers to plan, plant and harvest healthier crops while reducing wasted water and chemical applications
- Factories to build, stock, manage and ship products with robotic labor that prevents countless workplace accidents and injuries
- Ordinary people to create expressive user-created content that connects individuals across a school or around the planet in gaming, social media and the metaverse
- Service providers to stream all kinds of entertainment and information content to homes, laptops and mobile devices in a seamless mesh of connectivity
All of these examples, and countless others, demonstrate how much efficiency in our daily life depends on data centers—and that demonstrates how important energy efficiency will matter to those data centers in 2023 and beyond.