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The next decade of the data centre

Fri 27 Aug 2021 | Ben Parker

The last decade has been all about innovation. The next-gen technologies such as 5G, Internet of Things and edge computing have had a huge impact on data centre demand.

However, the digital shift, in particular remote working, that has come about because of the Covid-19 pandemic, is changing the face of data centres as we know them. As businesses find new ways to serve customers, staff and partners it is no surprise that the past year has experienced more demand for data than in the previous six years combined.

This has put tremendous pressure on data centres across the spectrum from hyperscale cloud providers such as Azure, AWS and Google where infrastructure resources can be added on-demand, to colocation providers and on-premises enterprise and telecom facilities. Lockdown and the mass migration of people to remote working practices has thoroughly tested the infrastructure we rely on.  It withstood the test. However, with increased digital adoption, the telcos and hyperscalers are gearing up for a decade of network creation that will bring all of humanity onto a high-powered network. The demands for data and the pressure on data centres in this phase will expand to exceptional levels.

Hybrid and the cloud go mainstream

Some of the foundations of this shift have already been put in place. Transitioning to the cloud has prompted organisations to move into colocation facilities and in some cases, their own enterprise data centres. This allows them to enjoy the flexible, effective and scalable benefits of dynamic infrastructure. Most importantly, it has relieved them of the constraints of in-house IT management.

Many businesses already consume cloud services such as Office 365 or Dropbox, and use Zoom and Google Hangouts for meetings, but the move to hybrid infrastructure does leave some nervousness, as it relies on the stitching together of existing on-premises infrastructure with cloud infrastructure services.  This is especially true of those professionals that spent a career having complete control over their infrastructure – trust still needs to be built but it is happening and will grow as a new generation of professionals enter the industry.

Growing at the edges

The benefits of the distributed cloud, including connectivity, stability, security and global reach are becoming harder to ignore. Companies have been using cloud in one form or another for some time and experience the advantages it offers in terms of making their businesses more resilient, agile and adding value through skills they do not possess in-house.

As businesses seek ways to move away from physical infrastructure by using the cloud, data centres will increase their physical footprints, albeit on a more distributed basis to deliver services at the edge – getting data and services closer to users.

Hyperscalers and telecoms companies will compete for space in this emerging market, recognising the benefits of delivering content where people are and where 5G networks will support significantly higher data transport requirements. This is why AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google, Oracle, IBM and Alibaba are eyeing Southern European countries including Greece, Italy, Spain, and Poland, where data centres are being planned and constructed on a huge scale.  It’s not just to accommodate the rapidly changing requirements of businesses and consumers, but to deliver the infrastructure, storage and access requirements that will enable a huge explosion in IoT and machine learning, incorporating everything from autonomous vehicles and smart cities through to connected farms, factories and AI-driven healthcare.

Shining a light on the data centre

Within this juggernaut of technological expansion, some elements remain inviolate. Fibre is one of them. The majority of video, data and voice signals still travel over fibre optic networks, despite cloud computing and wireless communications. But penetration levels are still relatively low. Even in the developed nations, fiberisation stands at an average of 65-70%.

With the expansion of hyperscalers, edge data centres and the rapidly increasing demands for high-speed internet in homes, transportation of data on a massive scale will be required, and it can only be delivered by robust fibre optic networks. To this end, Openreach, BT’s digital network business recently announced that it was partnering with STL to deliver millions of kilometres of optical fibre cable for its new ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, full-fibre broadband network.

Despite fibre being so often a hidden, unobtrusive part of the data centre, it has a massive part to play in delivering the fuel to power our data demands and support the digital economy. As data centres evolve to suit changing audiences and ever-distributed audience locations, optical fibre deployments will become more and more crucial to their success and to long-term, global connectivity.

The evolution continues

We have reached a phase where four major technology confluences will drive the next phase of the digital network: a) Wireless mobility with fibre-backed scale, b) separation/disaggregation of hardware and software, c) enhancement of networks from connectivity to compute capable, and d) everything coming to the edge with mobile edge computing. The role of the data centre in this era is arguably entering its most exciting period. Our expectations of these facilities are changing, accelerated by the pandemic, but along a well-established trajectory.  But the real change is societal.  Confidence in what AI can do for us, the desire for more freedom and how we achieve that with a breadth of connectivity and access to data and services is leading to a huge amount of innovation and investment.  The next decade will create more opportunities for businesses and us as individuals through the data centre than we have ever seen before.

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fibre optics hyperscale infrastructure
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