Death, taxes and sustainability?

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2022-01-11 09:29:11

(Almost) post-Covid, the idea of making predictions about anything whatsoever might seem somewhat reckless. Nevertheless, as someone who has been known to speculate on sporting results long before the events take place (the antepost market, or, as the finance industry would have it – ‘futures’), I’m happy to stick my neck out and offer a few observations as to how the data centre industry might shape up in 2022. Of course, as I am still busy editing and writing for the IT sector, rather than spending all of my time on the golf course or on a beach, readers can judge for themselves my success when it comes to predicting the future! Anyhow, here’s my own Data Centre Top 10 Predictions for the next 12 months.



No prizes for spotting this one. However, off the back of the COP26 Summit, there does seem to be a real step change when it comes to addressing climate change. I won’t buttonhole you with my own take on where this will all end up, but rather state that, perhaps for the first time ever, end users will really want to know about the meaningful environmental roadmap of any potential data centre provider. We’re moving beyond the ‘simple’ idea of carbon offsetting, towards Net Zero, and this means that data centre owners and operators will need to make some significant changes to the way in which they build, operate and maintain their facilities. Those that move fast and with a real green commitment will gain significant advantage.



Leaving aside the real or imagined impact of Brexit on the UK’s supply chain, there’s no doubting that the pandemic has caused major disruption to many industry sectors when it comes to the manufacture and supply of goods. Lead times are much longer, and prices are increasing, all of which means that, when it comes to sourcing both IT and data centre infrastructure, end users need to plan ahead like never before, and data centre owners/operators need to be similarly agile in anticipating the needs of both their existing and likely future customer base.



Not unrelated to the supply chain issue outlined above, in that there is an increasing shortage of humans as well as products - both skilled data centre and IT professionals, and the construction personnel required to carry out data centre building work, are in high demand. Costs are only going to increase as a result which, added to the power supply/price volatility, makes for a potentially expensive future for data centre owners/operators and their customers. A partnership approach, where everyone in the data centre supply chain works to help resolve issues around skills and supplies shortages, rather than takes a confrontational approach, is what’s required. Data centre owners/operators with a long history in the industry are almost certainly best placed to manage this potential problem, as they have built up good relationships with both their suppliers, personnel and customers.



Cybersecurity is always something of a grey area when it comes to the data centre. After all, it’s the data centre customers who are responsible for the security of their hardware and the applications they support. However, data centres themselves rely on increasingly amounts of their own IT infrastructure to optimise the performance of their facilities, and the owners/operators need to ensure that they are not offering the malicious folk an ‘easy route’ in to cause havoc. Whatever the latest cybersecurity trend – Zero Trust, SASE, end-to-end security etc. – end users will be taking an increasingly keen interest in the cybersecurity credentials of their data centre providers.



What started out as an exercise in performance optimisation – ensuring the right applications are in the right location, and supported with the right infrastructure for the optimum user experience – will likely continue when it comes to developing a hybrid approach to IT provisioning. Some mix of on-prem, colocation and Cloud/managed services is likely for the majority of organisations. Add to this the sustainability imperative, whereby the location of a data centre itself may well be increasingly important to customers, depending on their application requirements, and one can see the increasing use of different data centres for different applications. Most obviously, that’s edge versus larger, more centralised facilities; and maybe these larger facilities don’t always need to be that close to the user, but in a more sustainable location?



Several folk I’ve talked to in recent times suggest that 2022 will be the year that 5G finally arrives big time. The technology is already finding a use in more and more dedicated enterprise environments, but we’re still waiting for the telcos and anyone else who wants (maybe the hyperscalers, for example) to roll out the necessary 5G infrastructure and services across the country. This is a very expensive undertaking, so I remain slightly sceptical as to the speed at which this will happen – but let’s be optimistic, and I can dream that my Wiltshire location that all too frequently defaults from 4 to 3G, will enter the digital age with a leap to 5G!



Whether this happens in 2022 or not, I think we are rapidly approaching a time when the data centre industry might find its own efforts to become more sustainable are augmented by the stick of legislation. Of course, whether such legislation will be nuanced enough to understand that the data centre industry is something of a special case – yes, it consumes significant amounts of energy, but only because it is underpinning the ongoing, fast-moving digital revolution which appears to be unquestioned – well, I’ll leave you make up your own mind. 



Yes, it’s not a great comparison to make, as fossil fuels are unwelcome and on their way out. Nevertheless, the comparison does highlight the major, as yet unresolved, challenge facing us all when it comes to how we address both our carbon and digital footprints. If individuals and businesses are encouraged to generate and keep vast amounts of data, whether for pleasure or profit, then it would seem a tad harsh to castigate the data centre industry for expanding to cater for this demand. But will government, companies and/or individual citizens be ‘brave enough’ to start imposing data creation and consumption limits – whether in absolute terms or by a pricing mechanism?



Somewhat related to hybrid infrastructure and data centre locations, there seems to be a major build out of connectivity infrastructure right across the globe. Hardly a week seems to pass without me reading about yet one more subsea cable linking up various locations. Part of this process seems to be linking developing markets with mature markets, and part seems to be a more general capacity increase. The good news is that well-placed and well-connected data centres can offer their customers more and more options when it comes to how, when and where they interact with both their employees and customers – with increasing levels of reliability and resilience.



Last, and by no means least, AI has a major impact to make on the data centre industry – even allowing for the fact that it is already making a significant difference. If you take each of my previous nine predictions, it’s possible to see ways in which AI and automation can help to address the impact of each of these. Lack of skills – the right blend of AI and some human input can reduce headcount; Sustainability – AI can help to optimise the design, running and maintenance of a data centre, to minimise its environmental impact; Data – AI can discover which data is important and which is not (and maybe even delete the ‘rubbish’!); Interconnectivity – AI can discover the best connectivity route for any IT interaction between two or multiple points, based on any combination of factors, such as cost, speed and reliability.



One final prediction – the data centre industry will continue to miss the major opportunity to tell the world the essential role it plays in almost every aspect of our lives. Yes, the major IT companies, cloud providers and the like advertise their latest offerings, and the pandemic did make more people realise just how much they have come to rely on ‘technology’, but, ahead of likely environmental pressures (as per the airline industry), why doesn’t the data centre industry raise its profile and tell everyone just what it does day in day out? Or maybe the industry should go on strike for a day, shut down every data centre in the land, and then people would get the message?!!

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