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Robots and the data centre

Written by Mon 24 Jan 2022

Bots – those little bits of code that complete digital tasks automatically – are everywhere, enabling everything from robotic process automation (RPA) to online spam. Robots – the mechanical task-completing, labor-saving automated workers – are being tested in both business and personal applications.

Approximately 2.7 million industrial robots are currently operational, with an additional 400,000 added each year.

Industrial robots are found throughout manufacturing, but also healthcare and warehousing and logistics. In the Coachella Valley in California, a shortage of hospitality workers has led restaurants to embrace robots to supplement waitstaff and delivery personnel. The market for home robots is expected to grow at 20% CAGR through 2028. And at this year’s CES, a humanoid robot even responded to an audience member’s question (‘Do you have a boyfriend?’) with a quip (‘Do you have a boyfriend?’).

But robots have yet to find their place in the data centre industry. There have been tests and proofs of concept, some by the largest data centre providers worldwide. For example, Google has employed a robot that destroys hard drives at its hyperscale data centres, helping to create what Google refers to as a “fully-automated disk erase environment.” But the proof-of-concept of robots in the data centre have been mostly for limited task-specific, short-term applications.


What has held robots in the data centre back so far?

Data centres still rely largely on human workers, even if there is an opportunity to utilize robots to improve data centre operations and efficiency. This delay in adoption can be attributed to a variety of causes.

The data centre industry is historically conservative. While many, especially the larger enterprise-level operators, invest in research and development of new technology, as a whole the industry is highly risk-averse. The focus of data centres is service reliability: maximizing uptime to the best possible levels. This requires a tradeoff, as experimental thinking is often directly in conflict with reliable performance: there’s always a chance that the new cooling system implementation could cause an interruption in service to customers that rely on the data centre for core processes.

There has also been a lack of pressure to invest in robotic applications of AI and ML in physical data centre operations. Most data centre owners and operators have focused their investment and R&D in sustainability-related initiatives, which include power usage effectiveness, cooling, server optimization, etc. The specific physical tasks that affect data centre functioning have been largely left to human workers, while research was focused elsewhere.


Investment in robotics 2022

Sustainability is still a top concern across the industry, even affecting a company’s eligibility for specific, low-interest financing. Why would data centre companies focus on improving and extending the application of robots in the data centre now?


Pandemic-related changes

The pandemic resulted in lasting changes throughout the business environment. One of the industries that was affected was the data centre. As our business and personal lives moved increasingly to the digital world, data centre reliability became an even more critical concern. Data centre owners and operators responded to this need, entering 24/7 active operations: in certain cases with employees sleeping over in their facilities to ensure uninterrupted service.


At the same time, data centre companies were dealing with the same conditions of the pandemic as other businesses: with changes to PPE requirements, sanitation and cleaning, social distancing, quarantine and lockdown all creating complexities of their own.

The industry’s response to pandemic conditions showed the strengths and weaknesses of existing solutions. Robots may be a more attractive investment now and in the future, as companies improve their agility and response to rapid changes in operational requirements.

Moving some tasks to robots can help data centres reduce their sole reliance on human evaluation and intervention. There is the potential to introduce mixed solutions: where a robot could be used as an on-site tester, to monitor the data centre and provide data for evaluation at a centralized location. Then a person could be deployed on-site as needed providing for more efficient labor usage.


Labor shortage

The data centre industry has been suffering from a technical labor shortage for the past several years, and it is expected to continue into the future. 50% of data centre operators reported difficulty finding qualified staff before the pandemic, and the ensuing ‘great resignation’ has only worsened the situation. A recent report shows that 300,000 data centre jobs are expected to be added through 2028, bringing the labor gap to 2.3 million people. Automation is one way that data centres can address the labor shortage issue.


Advances in AI

Finally, recent advances in artificial intelligence have made the prospect of a functional data centre robot more accessible now than ever. Data centre giants, with deep pockets for research and development, have tested new AI solutions in the data centre, across a variety of applications. These include temperature monitoring, workload balancing, failure prevention, server optimization, and more.


The robotic future of the data centre

The fact that widespread adoption of data centre robotics hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean that the opportunity has not been recognized; just that it has not been a top priority to date. It may be time for this to change, however.

According to Gartner, half of all cloud data centres will deploy AI/ML-enabled robots by 2025, increasing operating efficiency by 30%. These robots are expected to impact data centres across areas including:

Server upgrades and maintenance.
Like the hard-drive destroying robots already in use at Google, these robots can be tasked with decommissioning and destroying hard drives with speed and efficiency. This will be particularly useful for cloud providers, which regularly conduct large-scale, cross-facility upgrades requiring the decommissioning and destruction of hard drives en masse.

Physical monitoring.
Much of the equipment monitoring in the data centre is repetitive and ongoing – making it an ideal candidate for automation. A robot sensor probe can provide granular server rack temperature data, or sounds and images, to alert technicians of any issues.

One concern with physical monitoring by robots is when they encounter a closed cabinet. In private data centres, server racks can be open and accessible by roaming, Roomba-like monitor robots. But in a colocation data centre, closed cabinets are an important security measure, ensuring limited access to a company’s servers. One company solved this issue with a stationary monitoring robot that can be placed inside the cabinet for real-time physical server monitoring.

Physical security is another area of data centre operations where robots can bolster human activities, helping to lessen the burden of repetitive, ongoing tasks and offset labor requirements. Switch, a leading data centre services provider, plans to offer data centres a roving security robot named Sentry.

As Switch president Thomas Morton stated, “Deploying 24x7x365 human guards at edge locations isn’t economically or physically practical. To address this issue, (the company) has developed a robotic AI human-in-the-loop security solution.”

Sentry is a 250-lb machine built to navigate stairs and sidewalk curbs, so that it can monitor the interior and exterior of the data centre effectively. Sentry provides real-time updates and can be controlled remotely. It is equipped with cameras and heat sensors, as well as license plate recognition and verification to identify specific vehicles.

At a Novva data centre in Utah, facility security is managed by a robot doc. Nicknamed WIRE, the dogs enforce access with facial recognition, monitor equipment, and recharge themselves in a ‘doghouse.’

There are many benefits available for businesses that take advantage of the opportunity presented by robots in the data centre. A typical data centre may requires about 30 employees – although that number may vary depending on the size of the facility. A robot can help to reduce the need for human interventions – or they may relieve the burden of repetitive administrative tasks, so that employees can focus on higher-level, strategic objectives.

Written by Mon 24 Jan 2022


cyber strategy data centre monitoring robotics security server
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