16 Nov 2020
Why would you put a data center in a city? It’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been doing for the last twenty years, but suddenly we are being told it’s essential. Let’s look at the reality…
Enterprises have been shutting data centres, and moving to colocation, as well as switching physical servers for virtual ones in the cloud. They do it because it’s more efficient. Shared physical spaces can be used more efficiently and shared virtual spaces - in some cases, even more so.
A hyperscale cloud data centre can hold the IT workloads of a thousand companies, taking the place of countless inefficient private data halls and server rooms. And because the cloud service provider can locate it where it pleases, it can take advantage of cheaper land, lower cost power and greener energy. Virtualisation has given us massive economies of scale.
And yet, local on-premise data centres persist, and location still matters. In fact, right now a powerful tech bandwagon is pushing the idea of data centers that are so small and local, you might have them on lamp-posts or at every single cell tower.
If you’re in the industry, you will have heard of 'Edge': the idea of putting digital resources close to producers and consumers of data, so that new applications like the Internet of Things (IoT) can get data back quickly (low latency).
To pick a sometimes-cited example, Edge proponents say autonomous vehicles will need data centres everywhere, so AI applications can identify images from their on-board cameras quickly. If the data centre responds quickly, that self-driving car will see you before it runs you over.
Extreme Edge scenarios are still mostly on the drawing board, but there’s a real and present need for small-to-medium sized data centres, which are close enough to their customers so communications are fast and cheap - and site visits are possible. For instance, when venture fund Astra Capital wanted to invest in Edge last year, it didn’t go for micro data centers on towers. It put money into DartPoints, a firm that makes small-but-traditional data centers for small-but-traditional customers (I heard the details from Scott Willis, the Dartpoints CEO appointed by Astra - in an interview for DCD Magazine 38).
Some of these local data centers will be big enough to host webscale customers, and the need for local resources will create local clusters. So London doesn’t just need a bunch of space westward in the humming Slough Trading Estate, but also to the North (for instance Harlow), South (maybe Crawley) or East (possibly Dagenham, say).
And clusters create a need for communications. The fundamental driver of Edge is fast communications, not location. Putting the data center nearby is just one way to cut low latency. If you’ve got a fast enough link to it, your Edge application can run in a big cloud center, or a reasonably local campus.
Which brings us to networks. Any data centre will make much of the number of carriers it connects to and the quality of its network links. As Edge and local connectivity becomes more important, I expect to see local initiatives to connect nearby businesses. One example is the nicely-named Light Blue Fibre, which is offering access to 100km of existing dark fibre and ducting around Cambridge, thanks to a joint venture between the local council and the University.
The nice thing here is that the council has lots of ducts, put down along its cycle routes and guided busways, while the University has a substantial fibre network called the Granta Backbone. The council’s ducts aren’t that useful till they have connections to the backbone, and the University’s network becomes less insular and a lot more useful to the Cambridge ecosystem, when it has links beyond the University to nearby science parks and campuses.
There are many other ways data centres will integrate into urban environments. They’ll obviously have to be considerate neighbours when it comes to noise and emissions from their diesel generators (if they have them).
And they would also do well to look into opportunities to give something back. Their waste heat might warm local houses or swimming pools, and events at their buildings might promote STEM subjects to local schools.
Urban data centers will be a thing of the future. They might even be more interesting, real and “human” than their remote hyperscale cousins.