Times are changing. No longer will data centres at central locations be able to meet the ever-increasing demands from corporate customers and private customers. No longer will poor service performance due to network latency be acceptable. No longer can new applications be bound by the limitations of centralised facilities and equipment. We are on a path of no return. Welcome to the era of micro edge data centres!
The world has changed
Not so many years ago, our demands of networks were more or less limited to instant dial tone and a static-free telephony connection, while the Internet seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Now there are billions of data users who probably have no idea what dial tone is and yet they expect instant response from their devices and applications.
In so many ways, the way we live our lives has been changed almost beyond recognition by networked technologies. This evolution continues to accelerate with a constant stream of new developments making us even more dependent on IT and Internet infrastructure. Research and development in the areas of artificial intelligence, sensor technologies, robotics and communications is progressing at an unprecedented pace. We are seeing the emergence of self-driving vehicles, autonomous drones, robots undertaking routine daily tasks and incredible advances in the fields of real-time multiplayer gaming, live streamed entertainment services, medical procedures and myriad IoT applications.
Of course, all of these developments continue to place enormous pressure on existing infrastructure. For certain technologies or applications such as online surgery or autonomous vehicles, network latency could be life threatening and is therefore completely unacceptable. The user experience with increasingly popular video streaming applications can be significantly impaired due to caching delays. And with streaming entertainment services already consuming vast amounts of the available bandwidth, capacity shortages and network bottlenecks make it difficult for new data-hungry applications to run smoothly straight out of the box. Furthermore, while certain applications will have built-in capability to operate autonomously when operating in remote areas or to cope with any network downtime, ultimately, infrastructure uptime is crucial to keep the world ticking along and uptime, of course, costs money. So, we need to find a balance between site-uptime and networked redundancy in order to ensure that the required infrastructure can grow at the required rate and at an affordable cost.
Flexenclosure eCentre Micro Data Centre for NextDC in Australia
Welcome to the era of micro edge data centres
In the last few years we have seen the emergence of edge data centres, more often in tier two or three cities, or in emerging economies. Flexenclosure has been pioneering the deployment of such edge data centres throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia Pacific and we are now starting to see this happen in developed economies too.
What’s clear though is that the construction of edge data centres at locations a hop or two away from the hyperscale core data centres is not enough. IT capacity and computational power needs to get much closer to the point of creation and consumption of data – closer to the end-users – if the issues of latency, bandwidth, capacity and redundancy are to be overcome. And this will require the implementation of much smaller data centres – micro edge data centres – and in much larger numbers than ever before.
While a micro edge data centre can, at a basic level, be considered a mini version of typical larger data centres, there is a distinct difference: at the micro edge there will be much tighter coupling between the communication and IT infrastructure. The other major difference is that there will be many more of them, not tens or hundreds but tens of thousands. And when rolling out these new facilities in such large volumes, there will clearly be significant capex and opex implications – challenges certainly, but all with available solutions.
First of all, when deploying large numbers of small technical facilities, it should go without saying that constructing each one on site would elevate the project’s cost, risk and duration to unacceptable levels. The clear solution is prefabrication in a dedicated specialised facility. This delivers the benefits of serial manufacture; optimisation of the production and integration process; enabling full system testing before shipment to site; and a higher quality product at a much lower production and operational cost. Prefabrication of data centre facilities has been happening for many years now and Flexenclosure has pioneered the deployment of its prefabricated eCentre data centre facilities of various sizes all around the world. But while traditionally built facilities are still an option too for larger projects, it’s clear that in the micro edge data centre space prefabrication is the only appropriate solution.
In addition to the cost benefits of prefabrication, by adopting a standardised design which can be mass produced, initial production pricing can be driven down significantly. Additionally, a standardised design allows for optimisation of system vendors’ equipment, also resulting in lower prices. And the site works can be standardised too, with potentially the only local adaptation required being to take account of any unique soil, seismic or elevation conditions at the site in question. The look and feel of the facility itself though will be the same as all of its siblings elsewhere as they will all have been prefabricated together. Of course, it’s very unusual for a new data centre not to have a certain level of site or use-specific customisation and in the data centre world one size never fits all. However, we believe that for micro edge data centres, design standardisation is not only possible but an absolute requirement if they are to be truly cost effective and a 10-15 rack option, a 5-6 rack option and perhaps even a 1 rack option should cover most requirements.
The cost implications of staffing every micro edge site would be an immediate deal breaker. And even if money was no object, in many remote locations it would likely be nigh on impossible to find appropriately qualified personnel. The solution is to enable every micro edge site to operate un-manned and to be remotely monitored and managed from a central network operating centre. The combination of planning for remote management from the initial project design phase and standardising all installed systems (as described above) will make remote management much simpler and more cost effective.
Any well-built data centre should be a tight integration of mechanical and electrical systems, perfectly cocooned within the building structure around it. These highly tuned facilities need all independent systems to work seamlessly and consistently as any downtime, especially extended downtime, is not acceptable. Advanced planning for both preventative and reactive maintenance is therefore a critical task and one that is – for all the same reasons described above for remote management – made much simpler when deploying a standardised prefabricated data centre solution.
A different approach to redundancy
Critical infrastructure needs redundancy and there are a number of ways in which this can be achieved. Designing facilities so there are no single points of failure is a standard approach. But with micro edge data centres typically being part of a mesh network of such facilities, another approach could be to actually allow a micro edge site to go offline if the applications it’s supporting are able to seamlessly hand over data processing and caching tasks to neighbouring micro edge sites. This would provide the additional advantage of allowing a micro edge facility to be proactively temporarily pulled out of service for maintenance activities or even for total replacement.
There is no question that the era of micro edge data centres has arrived. That’s not to say that there will be a slowdown in the construction of larger edge, core or hyperscale facilities. On the contrary, data centres of all sizes are set to grow in significant numbers worldwide. But for sheer volume alone, the micro edge space will show enormous growth and the opportunity for both data centre manufacturers and operators will be huge. Welcome to the future of the data centre industry.