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The changing face of the data centre

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

The past year has seen more demand for data than in the previous six years combined. This has put tremendous pressure on data centres across the spectrum, from hyperscale and colocation through to enterprise and telecom facilities. Here, Ben Parker, CEO at IDS (an STL company) looks at how the data centre is adapting to holding our world together.

Lockdown has been the biggest test of infrastructure as millions of people shifted to remote work. It proved to be up to the task, but as we start to adopt a more hybrid mode of working, and innovation continues apace, the demands for data and the pressure on data centres are set to grow at unprecedented levels.

Some of the building blocks of this change have already been put in place. The transition to the cloud has seen organisations move into colocation facilities or even their own enterprise data centres. This allows them to enjoy the flexible, effective and scalable benefits of dynamic infrastructure. Most importantly, it has unfettered them from the constraints of in-house IT management.

The biggest driver towards dynamic infrastructure, however, is the consumer. Despite UK Internet speeds declining by only 2% during the lockdown in 2020, people are not prepared to tolerate any delay or interruption to their broadband supply.

Instead, YouGov found in a recent survey, that over a third (36%) will switch to mobile data in order to stay online. In households with large families, where demand for bandwidth that will simultaneously support video calls, streaming movies and accessing a VPN is commonplace, the situation is exacerbated. What the home needs now is cloud.

Distributed cloud is now mainstream

It’s no surprise then to see that as on-premises infrastructure is decreasing the major benefits of the distributed cloud, including connectivity, stability, security and global reach become harder to ignore. The biggest investments made in the data centre market, therefore, are amongst the hyperscalers.

In the sights currently of AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google, Oracle, IBM and Alibaba are Southern European countries like Poland, Greece, Spain and Italy, where data centres are being planned and built on a massive scale.

This is not just to accommodate the rapidly changing needs of today, 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 and factories and AI-driven healthcare.

The real question is can they move fast enough? Currently, less than 20% of data sits in the cloud, the other 80% is not just in other models of data centre, but residing in offices or homes on hard disks, unused laptops, PCs and tablets.

Equally, just half of the world’s population is Internet-connected right now. However, the digital revolutions unfolding in India and parts of Africa presage a tsunami of global connections and each one will generate more and more data to be stored and accessed.

And this is where edge data centres come in. Hyperscalers and telecoms companies will compete for space in this emerging market, where content can be moved much closer to users and where 5G networks will support significantly higher data transport requirements.

Not only will this reduce data dependence on the app or service that is being accessed, it will also accelerate the processing of data and maintain lower latency.

Fibre enables services at the edge

As people and 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. What will connect them is the most unsung element of the virtual world – fibre.

The majority of video, data and voice signals still travel over fibre optic networks, despite cloud computing and wireless communications. Although this is the best mechanism for transmitting data as light pulses along an ultrapure strand of glass, penetration levels are still relatively low. Even in the developed nations, fiberisation stands at only 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 needed. It can only be enabled by robust fibre optic networks built across the globe.

Openreach, BT’s digital network business, has recognised this, and recently announced that it was partnering with STL to provide optical cables for its new ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, full-fibre broadband network. This will see STL delivering millions of kilometres of very slim optical fibre cables directly to homes and business premises in the UK.

Deploying optical networks that can transport petabytes of data to and from data centres in more remote parts of the world requires expertise in cable laying standards and practices, knowledge of intrusion-proof cable technology, network monitoring and GIS mapping.

Given that fibre is 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.

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