Steven Carlini, Vice President, Innovation and Data Centre, Schneider Electric, discusses what he believes may be on the cards for data centres in 2022.
Data centres have become the very heart of the digital economy, and critical
to our ever more digitised way of life. As we adapt to a new and hybrid world, greater
innovation will be necessary to help overcome many of the remaining challenges,
including the need for increased sustainability, more efficient use of energy,
and for our industry to meet accelerated demands for capacity. Let’s take a
closer look at five trends that are influencing the direction of data centres.
Digital design tools speed development
I expect to see greater innovation in the digitisation of data centre design
and build. One of the top challenges customers are experiencing is the need to
meet demands for new data centre capacity. To help address this challenge, new
software tools are emerging that speed up the design and construction of data
centres. Schneider Electric’s partner ETAP produces software (essentially a
digital twins tool) that allows designers to model the electrical powertrain for
availability, efficiency, and sustainability. Another company, in which
Schneider Electric has a stake, is RIB, which develops construction management
Traditional computer-aided design (CAD) platforms have long allowed users
to design the layout of a facility, however, the use of ETAP’s software allows
detailed modelling of the powertrain while RIB’s enables time and cost modelling.
Although CAD tools have been familiar for many years, the ability to model the
powertrain is new. End-users can now choose or substitute components and
subsystems based on their environmental impact or energy efficiency – evaluating
the effects on technical performance and pricing via digital twins before
committing to physical prototypes.
The 6G effect
Fifth generation networks have been expected to make an impact for
some time, but the fast millimetre wave 5G variant has been slow to materialise.
5G is, however, beginning to make an impact in open spaces with few physical
barriers such as stadiums, airports, and shipyards. The problem remains that a
killer application to drive the need for mass adoption has yet to materialise.
An exciting prospect is 6G networks, which could offer life and experience
changing functionality. 6G operates at THz frequencies and has access speeds of
1Tbps, which will deliver near ‘air latency’. Whereas high band 5G hits speeds
around 500Mbps, with air latency aimed at 8-12ms. Potential use cases for 6G
include embedded technology for controlling artificial limbs (prosthetics) through
wireless Brain-Computer Interactions (BCI), which is an incredible prospect! In
the 6G world, people could interact with their environment and other people
using devices that could be held, worn, or implanted.
6G networks also have the potential to eliminate traditional base
station and antenna networks because their high frequencies need a ubiquitous
mesh network where everything around you has an antenna function. In theory
everything that powers up will have a built in antenna function and become part
of this new ‘antenna free’ network. While the network architecture may change
with 6G, the computing capacity will need to grow, so placement at the edge
will become even more crucial.
Energy concerns at the edge
Adoption of edge infrastructure will also continue to grow. However,
energy efficiency will become a critical factor, with customers demanding that
edge deployments match the capabilities of larger data centres in terms of resilience,
efficiency, and sustainability. Edge deployments may be smaller than
traditional facilities, but the scale and volume at which the infrastructure is
likely to be deployed demands its environmental impact be minimised.
Building a sustainable edge at scale requires greater attention when
selecting components, during the design and deployment stages, and use of comprehensive
management systems to drive operational efficiency. Cooling will remain an
essential part of the efficiency requirements, but the challenges presented by
edge deployments, especially those in unmanned environments, will require
innovative approaches in terms of technology and topology.
Air cooling is often unsuitable for edge deployments, which are
frequently located in urbanised and harsh locations where dust and other
contaminants abound. Blowing such material around an unmanned or remote edge data
centre is far from ideal, and even if filters were attached, the task of
frequent replacement and servicing remains a key challenge – especially where
cost and circularity are concerned.
With sealed and unmanned edge data centres, therefore, liquid cooling
will be required, although it is not yet clear what sort of topology will be
best suited. As such, new liquid cooled architectures may emerge for the edge
at scale. Whether that involves direct-to-chip liquid cooling or chassis-based immersive
cooling is yet to be seen.
Standardised metrics for sustainability
The circular economy – the ability to reduce, reuse, and recycle
technologies deployed at the edge – will be an important consideration in 2022
and beyond. However, another area growing in importance is the need for
standardised sustainability metrics. Today, there are a plethora of metrics
from which to choose, with data centre operators each reporting their own
preferred measurements. However, I believe there is a need to measure
sustainable progress in a consistent and organised way.
According to the Uptime Institute, IT and Power consumption, and Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) remain the top sustainability metrics tracked across the industry. While PUE has long been an excellent marker of efficiency, we must also agree on metrics for the other categories of environmental sustainability – greenhouse gas emissions, water use, waste, and biodiversity.
Going forward, I believe sustainability metrics within the industry must
evolve and become more standardised. This effort can leverage business
processes, like GAAP balance sheets and income statements, to provide a ledger
where each company can state the results using established rules and units of
measurement. An approach such as this ensures comprehensive reporting that is
universally understood and provides a baseline to measure success. Further, it makes
it possible to compare sustainability results with other companies.
At Schneider Electric, we know that not all companies are at the same stage of their sustainability journey, which is why we recommend a framework for Beginning, Advanced, and Leading. Beginning companies will report on energy use, Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG), and water utilisation. The 11 metrics for this level are a mix of measured values like GHG emissions in mtCO2e and ratios like Carbon usage effectiveness (CUE) in mtCO2e/kWh. ‘Advanced’ metrics bring in the ‘waste’ category and ‘Leading’ metrics will include a category for land and biodiversity.
Data centre functions become services
Data Centre as a Service (DCaaS) offerings are beginning to gain
popularity. The trend is enabled by standardising power, cooling, IT and
storage in data centres to offer the same user experience and data access from
everywhere. Companies like Microsoft and Amazon have already started offering such
services with their Azure and Outposts initiatives, extending versions of their
cloud architecture into the edge environment where customers can pay a monthly
service fee for their capacity.
Many traditional IT companies such as Dell and HPE have positioned themselves
as IT advisors to help companies design and run business application or
workloads in the cloud (consulting services, engineering, integration and
management), rather than as IT hardware and software suppliers, so one might
predict that DCaaS will continue to gain traction.
Overall, I believe data centre capacity will continue to grow at both
the core and edge driven by digital acceleration and enabled by high capacity
networking 4/5/6G and WiFi 6. Model based software will be leveraged to bring efficient,
resilient, and sustainable data centre capacity online faster, which is great
timing, as we are at the precipice of edge being deployed at scale.