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Data centre 5G: challenges vs. opportunities

Fri 6 May 2022

In a recent announcement by the Japanese Prime Minister, Fumido Kishida stated that the government expects 5G coverage to reach 99% of the country’s population by 2030. That’s an increase from less than 40% coverage as of 2020.

5G networks are expanding across the globe, and data centres must be prepared to meet the new challenges this presents, and take full advantage of the opportunities.


The promises of 5G for the data centre

Both private and public-sector leaders have been supportive of the adoption and spread of 5G technology, lauding the many benefits that it is expected to offer to businesses and to end-users.

Expected benefits of 5G include:

High bandwidth

Depending on your level of coverage, 5G offers very high bandwidths, supporting download speeds that could range from 1Gbps to 10Gbps. This is an enormous change from current 4G networks, which support average download speeds of 15-50Mbps.

However, many of the 5G networks that are currently accessible are in the low-band spectrum, known as Sub-6. Low-band spectrum networks have certain advantages: they cover long distances and can penetrate obstacles. However, low-band spectrum download speeds are slower, creating a wide range of download speeds between different carriers.

Low latency

Current 4G networks offer average latency of around 50ms. This could drop to 1ms in a 5G environment, meaning that delays would be imperceptible to the human eye, which processes images at around 10ms.

Low latency is viewed as a major benefit of 5G because it enables technological advancements. It opens the possibility of services that demand instantaneous, real-time data transmission and response. This could include remote surgeries and other types of telemedicine, responsive gaming, IoT applications, autonomous vehicles, and more.

Data centre owners and operators should consider the best way to find the balance between managing new security risks associated with 5G

Simon Lockington, Senior Director Solutions Architects at Equinix noted, “Faster, lower-latency 5G network infrastructures will be a huge boost to IoT, AI, online gaming, virtual/augmented reality, and smart cities – not to mention, other markets trying to break into the mainstream, such as quantum computing.

“But before any of this can see the light of day, many regulatory, spectrum licensing, security and infrastructure retrofitting issues that currently exist must be resolved on a country-by-country basis. One critical barrier to overcome is the distance limitations inherent in 5G technology that will require proximate placement and interconnection between larger numbers of 5G network nodes.”

Much like bandwidth, the potential of low 5G latency will not be realised immediately.

Connection density

5G networks support a much larger number of devices than previous networks. For example, a standard 4G network can handle the traffic from approximately 2,000 devices per square metre; while 5G may exceed 100,000 devices in the same area.

This is a key point for businesses looking to employ more IoT applications. IoT applications can require thousands of device connections in a small geographic area, which could seriously overtax existing networks with potential connection density.


Challenges of 5G for the data centre

Compute resources

Increased bandwidth and low latency support advanced technological applications: but advanced technological applications mean lots of information and processes running through the data centre. Data centres must factor this into their strategies, increasing available compute resources to handle a major increase in requirements.

Power and cooling

Additional compute resources may require more power to operate, or run at a higher temperature. This will have a knock-on effect on the power and cooling systems at data centres. Existing data centres should be evaluated to ensure that increased compute resources are accounted for in power and cooling systems; and new construction should take this into account in the design phase as well.

Flexible workflows

A flexible, responsive workflow system can be instrumental to managing processes in an efficient and productive manner. Flexible workflows support more efficient resource usage – which will prove a critical enabler of additional information and processes that will be flowing through data centres as 5G networks begin to take over.

Data centres may also consider applying new technologies including composable infrastructure, which supports virtualization of resources. These resources can then be managed by software to dedicate resources according to need and manage the ebb and flow of both scheduled and unscheduled process volumes.


Managing security in a 5G environment may be one of the biggest challenges of adapting the data centre to this new technology. 5G is all about new capabilities: bandwidth, latency, and connection density. But security and risk management activities tend to slow down and minimise those capabilities.

According to Barbara Cosgriff of Wind River, “Typically the more secure you make something, the less it performs. The key is to find the balance.”

Data centre owners and operators should consider the best way to find the balance between managing new security risks associated with 5G, and optimising the potential capabilities of the new technology. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency recommends that data centres look at data protection in four different ways:

  • Prevent and detect lateral movement
  • Securely isolate network resources
  • Protect data in transit, in use, and at rest
  • Ensure integrity of infrastructure

As of March 2021, 24 out of 27 EU countries had successfully deployed 5G commercial services. Of the countries in the EU only Portugal, Lithuania and Malta had yet to deploy 5G. But commercial deployment doesn’t mean that 5G rollouts are complete – as providers move out of Sub-6 and into high-band spectrum networks, 5G networks will come closer to realising the promise and potential of this technology. As they do, demands on the data centre will continue to increase. Data centre owners and operators should understand this, and keep it in mind when building their ongoing short- and long-term business strategies.


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