As digitalization drives rage on even in the third-world countries, issues of energy consumption, sustainability, resilience and accessibility will define 2021.

As more of the world moved online seemingly overnight in the pandemic, the criticality of data centers and the increasing reliance on them will become part of the successful lifelines of the global catastrophe.

Data centers have long been held to high availability standards, but in the era defined by pandemic preparedness, they will shift toward becoming a utility as important as electricity. This shift will be noticeable in two ways, according to experts from Vertiv, a global provider of critical digital infrastructure and continuity solutions. 

First, high expectations for network availability will extend deep into rural and remote areas, bringing critical applications to more of the population. This will increase pressure on data centers to maintain connectivity even at the outer edges of their networks.

Second, any distinction between availability and connectivity will be erased, as the ability to ensure and protect connections across increasingly-distributed hybrid networks becomes as much of a requirement as any traditional measure of data center uptime. 

Said Gary Niederpruem, Chief Strategy and Development Officer, Vertiv: “Data centers have been moving toward public utility-type status for some time, but the pandemic has crystalized the need to establish the kinds of official guardrails that have been commonplace across other utilities. This isn’t just about working from home, although that is part of it. More importantly, it is about supporting the digital economy in its most mission-critical forms, which include increased reliance on telemedicine and health, enhanced e-commerce, and global telecommunications and mass media.” 

Data center trends in 2021

As the data center industry adjusts to and eventually moves beyond the new global baseline for digital infrastructure resilience, Vertiv’s experts have identified several other emerging trends this year:

  • Remote-work is a works in progress: Remote-visibility and management will become paramount to the success of work-from-home arrangements and remote services *such as telehealth) worldwide.

    Already, remote service capabilities have emerged to minimize the need for on-site service calls, such practices are likely to continue long after the pandemic. Over time, what is done in-person versus remotely will change, and the change will be driven by customers looking to minimize the need to be present on-site. That will place a premium on connectivity, remote monitoring, data analytics, and even AI to make decisions.
  • Bringing large data center capabilities to the fringe: Compared to decades ago, today’s edge infrastructure is more critical and more complex—functionally an extension of the data center.

    Cost and complexity have prevented implementation of data center best practices in these spaces, but that is changing. Vertiv’s experts anticipate a continued focus on bringing hyperscale and enterprise-level capabilities to these edge sites at the fringe of the Cloud. This includes greater intelligence and control, an increased emphasis on availability and thermal management, and more attention to energy efficiency across systems.

    According to the firm’s Senior Director Colocation, Cloud, BFSI Asia & India, Tony Gaunt: “While remote work was initially mandated due to the pandemic, it has already become a semi-permanent fixture in many workplaces. The need for low latency connectivity is no longer exclusive to large cities: we need on-the-spot processing at the edge, enabling businesses to be fully operational anywhere.”
  • Turning the 5G conversation to energy consumption and efficiency: In the nascent phase of 5G, the discussion has focused on the ultimate benefits of the technology.

    However, as countries and early adopters start to drive breadth and scale, the focus will shift to the significant energy consumption increases brought on by 5G—estimated to be 3.5x more than 4G—and to the need to deploy more efficiently and effectively.

    This year (and beyond) we will see an increasing focus on managing that significant increase in energy consumption, by exploring more efficient products and practices.  
  • Repeat after us: Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability: As the proliferation of data centers mounts, especially in the hyperscale space, cloud and colocation providers are (or will be) facing increased scrutiny for their energy and water usage. 5G is one piece of a broader sustainability story.

    The amplification of the climate change conversation and the shifting political winds in the USA and globally will only add to the focus on the data center industry, which accounts for approximately 1% of global energy consumption.

    In 2021 we will see a wave of innovation focused on energy efficiency across the data center ecosystem, starting with cost reduction; compliance with existing and anticipated regulations; and the goodwill that comes with establishing a leadership position in the global sustainability movement.

As we push ahead in the next 12 months, let us look forward to important innovations across the data center infrastructure space, especially in the area of thermal management. These are exciting times because even late-comers to digital transformation (that did not succumb to the effects of the pandemic) can get to enjoy the fruits of the massive global mandate to make up for what we should have done much sooner.