While you might not realize it, almost every aspect of our lives relies on what is happening inside these buildings. “Nine times out of 10, they are data centers,” says Bruce Taylor, executive vice president of Data Center Dynamics, North America. “Society could not function without the data center,” says Bruce.
Yet, many people do not know what data centers are or what they do.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize the importance of data centers and what data centers provide in their lives – just like how a lot of kids don’t know where their food comes from,” says Dale Sartor, staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The confusion is understandable. “It used to be that the data center was clearly identified as a physical postal address. You knew where data centers were, because they were big buildings with no signs on them – but they got mail,” explains Bruce. Today’s cloud makes the concept of a data center less clear. “In a software-defined world, the physical reality of data centers doesn’t go away. Now, it’s just much more virtual,” says Bruce.
So, what is behind the blacked-out windows?
“We can think of a data center as a big computer,” says Lucas Beran, senior research analyst with IHS Markit. “Instead of plugging your computer into the wall, you are plugging the building into the utility grid.”
Data centers have all the same parts as a computer for computing, storage and networking.
How does this relate to our lives? “We send pictures, videos and texts every day. In order for all of that traffic to get to its intended destination, it is processed through what we call an ‘information super highway,’ and the data center is the connection point,” says Laura Nereng, Electronics and Energy Business Group sustainability leader at 3M. “Data enters the data center and are stored, processed and/or sent on to a destination. This could be a new destination, or a computed result may be sent back out to its original location for monitoring and adjustment of some system.”
And data centers must never fail.
“A data center is the lifeblood. It’s the heart of all business. Nothing happens in the world without the data center,” says Bruce.
Businesses are not the only ones relying on data centers. If you think about it, it’s hard for all of us to separate our lives from data.
“When we look at society and the technology that has enabled society to be more connected, there are lots of good reasons why we use data in our everyday lives. “I video chat with my son in the UK almost every day when I’m abroad. All of that generates a significant amount of data,” says Zahl Limbuwala, founder of Romonet, a company that provides predictive analytics software services to data centers.
Without data centers, we would not have access to our email or internet-based devices, like our smartphones. We would not be able to use our ATMs and credit cards – or shop online, stream entertainment and use today’s increasingly popular virtual and augmented reality devices.
Data surrounds us, even when we are driving. We’re used to pulling up our GPS every time we get into our cars to find directions and see what traffic looks like. “It’s funny. Whenever it takes a little longer for your GPS to load, it’s almost like you get a sense of frustration, even if you know where you’re going,” says Lucas. “You have that need or desire for it to be instantaneous.”
Our increasing demand for these devices, or what Bruce calls ‘a digital transformation,’ has caused an exponential growth in the amount of data across the world. In fact, more data was created in the last two years than ever before in human history and the amount of data in existence is expected to continue doubling every two years.
This is just the start of the real data explosion. “Big data is at the beginning of its journey. It’s at the very infancy of where it’s going to go,” says Laura.
“Two years ago, we crossed over about one zettabyte of data globally,” says Bruce. Not familiar? One zettabyte equals 1,024 exabytes. “In 2017, we completed the year at 4.4 zettabytes. By the time we turn this decade, there will be something on the order of 50-75 zettabytes worldwide,” says Bruce. “That’s a massive amount of data, and this is what people don’t see coming at us.”
To support this need, data center construction is also on the rise. “Our internet of things devices are driving an explosive growth that results in hyperscale data centers, which are very large facilities that are necessary to store all data,” says Bruce.
In North America alone, construction of data centers grew by 43 percent from 2016 to 2017 due to demand from cloud computing companies that needed more server space. U.S. data centers have seen more investment in 2017 than ever before to support this construction.
While there are many kinds of data centers, a common type is an enterprise data center, which is owned by a business. Large companies will likely depend on large-scale public cloud data centers called hyperscale data centers. Designed to provide computing on a massive scale, these facilities can have several hundreds of thousands to millions of servers(PDF, 926 KB) across their networks globally. Hyperscale data centers are expected to account for 53 percent of all data center traffic by 2020(PDF, 926 KB).
Companies are also transitioning toward utilizing colocation and cloud service providers. Colocated, or multi-tenant, data centers are owned by service providers in order to keep up with the rapidly changing and growing data center industry. “Instead of hosting a data center within your own building, you might share those resources with other enterprises,” says Lucas.
Some companies utilize a hybrid cloud adoption type model. “More and more enterprises are adopting the cloud model, as they feel more comfortable having some services off-premises and then maintaining a footprint on premise,” says Lucas.
Edge data centers are the newest type of data centers. They are smaller data centers built closer to us to satisfy our need for rapid access and speed. “By the edge, we mean the edge of the network, right where the internet of things meets the computing side of things,” explains Bruce.
Certain low-latency applications that require immediate responses – like augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles and machine learning – may rely on the edge. Dale explains that if you are riding in an autonomous vehicle, you do not want your vehicle being controlled by a data center that is far away. You want to make sure that the information is being received rapidly and from a nearby source. That is what edge data centers are meant to provide.
Just when you think the edge is the limit, it is not. Another type of data center – called a micro data center – is on the horizon. They are part of the edge network. Since they can range in size from a half-rack to a large commercial refrigerator, micro data centers are portable and can be deployed anywhere. The smallest ones can even fit under your office desk. They are also self-contained, and because of this, they have provided a decibel reading below 50 – as quiet as a library.
While server rooms need to be cooled constantly, micro data centers require less energy to be cooled since they do not need to be enclosed in a dedicated server room. Instead, a micro data center incorporates all the attributes of a server room and data center within the unit itself.
Who needs a micro data center? They are beneficial in places like factories and logistics warehouses, which are increasingly becoming more automated with robotics and machine vision that rely on the power of edge computing.
Regardless of what type of data center you’re speaking about, all data centers have a responsibility. It is vital that the data center network isn’t interrupted.
“People generally expect things to work instantaneously. There are more and more of what I call ‘mission-critical applications’ that are deemed too costly to fail,” says Lucas. “It’s one thing if streaming your favorite movie stops working. You can live with that.”
For health care organizations, government agencies, banks and large corporations that rely on these mission-critical applications, the stakes could be higher if data center service shuts down.
As the data center industry and its scientists look to the future, they are discussing how to sustainably support increasing data needs.
They’re working together to create efficient data center solutions, so we can continue using and creating data without the fear or our information being lost or disrupted.
Note: The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily state or reflect those of The Regents of the University of California or the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.