If you thought that data and computing as a utility like electricity was a fancy concept only fit for some fictional sci-fi movie, then think again. That day is upon us already when data and computing will join energy and power as a utility. Thanks to the tectonic changes or shall we call it pandemic-driven shifts in the way technology is being deployed, data centers are evolving into a multi-tier model where the local Edge data centre will do all the heavy lifting in terms of data crunching and sending select data back to the Central data centre. And this requires access to uninterrupted power supply where the edge servers will be located. If you think deeply about this, this evolution will have a huge cascading effect in terms of moving the digital transformation to every nook and corner of the world.
“Not long ago, we were talking about mega trends — urbanisation, digitisation, and industrialisation resulting in IoT devices leading to a boom in data,” says Venkatraman Swaminathan, VP & Country GM, India & SAARC, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric. “I like the idea of the Central, Regional and Edge data centres. The future is bound to move into this direction,’’ he adds. Gartner says that today 70 per cent of data is being processed in the cloud and within 3-4 years this may reverse to 70 per cent data processing happening at the Edge data centre.
Imagine you are sitting in your living room and getting the complete experience of watching a movie just like in a movie hall where the movie streams without buffering or interruptions due to power outages. “That is where edge data centres and uninterrupted power supply will go hand in hand — bandwidth and power,” says Venkatraman.
“There is a mass need for data centres,’’ says Abhinav Tiwari, Director, IT Infrastructure, Indigo InterGlobe Aviation. ‘’More importantly, with the pandemic, there is a need for innovation to bring tech to support businesses. The next big thing will be Edge computing with 5G,’’ says Tiwari. There is now a general consensus among tech experts that in this need to bring tech close to people and to Tier-2 and Tier-3, data centres will have a huge role to play just like in developed economies like the US and the UK. We have a similar opportunity.
The Rise of Hyperscalers
Hyperscalers are data centres which will have the ability to scale rapidly — supporting large number of racks with colocation of cloud hosts, like 400-500 racks in a single location which can then scale up to 10,000 and upwards.
“We are at an inflection point. Digital India is a super driver, a combination of public and private sector initiatives will benefit everyone,’’ says Kshitij Singh, MD, KASC.
The actual growth will be seen in what are known as hyperscale central data centre repositories. Edge data centres and Regional data centres will also witness high growth. Hyperscaler (over 300 racks), Regional (100-300 racks) and Edge data centres (under 25 racks) will form the backbone of Digital India. Low latency facilities that provide data packet transfer at less than 30ms will allow download of a movie under 10 seconds, such as through the 5G network. “Telcos will be one of the major drivers. Use cases would differ. We are going to move from the work-from-home culture to work-from-anywhere culture, transaction-from-anywhere culture, communications-fromanywhere culture. It is going to be a big driver,” says Kshitij.
What will hasten up this process of adoption of hyperscalers and edge data centres is the urgent need for zero touch computing. There is a need now more than ever to ensure zero touch processes to, say, complete business transactions. Banks are coming up with instant account opening or clinics are offering doctor appointments and consultations over a video call. The aviation sector had to come up with innovations for traveler safety and zero touch operations. ‘’Our challenge was: can the passenger travel with zero touch operations?’’ says Tiwari. Data centres will be the core of it. “To fuel the exponential growth opportunity for India and to further add to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a $5-trillion economy, the data centre rollout in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities will play a major role,” adds Tiwari.
Examples on the Ground
Ecommerce and large retail chains are in a way already embracing a hybrid architecture comprising the cloud, regional data centre and edge data centre. Here is a classic case involving Tanishq, a Titan Company business, which has a central data centre. They hold valuable inventory and they wanted to ramp up their CCTV surveillance. If they had to record 12 hours of video and send it to the central data centre to run analytics, then the bandwidth required would have been stupendous. And that’s just for a single store. Multiply that by 150 stores they own, and the project would be a nonstarter from day zero. Instead, they moved edge servers into the showrooms and today record video and run analytics locally and send only exceptions to the central server for future analysis, thus dramatically reducing the bandwidth and computing power at the central data centre, which otherwise had to process video from all the 150 stores.
The pharma industry is a case in point where data centres are proving to be a game changer. Due to the very nature of the industry and regulatory requirements, pharma companies generate a humungous amount of data and has to hold on to it, access it, open it up for validations by their own researchers and regulatory authorities over large periods spanning 10-20 years. Again, a hub-and-spoke model of local servers connected to a central data centre comes to the aid here. “Going through approvals from regulatory authorities both within India and in the US and EU have become easier as we moved our data to a data centre” says Pankju Ram, Head – Engineering and Projects, Alder Biochem. So “ease of compliance” is a dramatic benefit pharma companies are able to realise.
Elsewhere in the IT industry, signs of things to come postpandemic are emerging. “I am taking care of a 12,000 sq ft. data centre. I am a facilities head and I watch the facility from a different perspective. To me the heat load is crucial,” says Rajeesh KC. The heat load in Rajeesh’s data centre increased beyond the power budget as VPN access increased due to employees accessing remotely. Data centre servers are vulnerable to increased heat. While most companies are adding more equipment to increase network capability, these unplanned additions add burden on the power supply. This is where a robust BMS software comes in handy to help monitor the loads and take timely action. “We have enough sensors which give us signals and we have SCADA systems to alert us,” says Rajeesh.
But what he says next unravels one of the biggest secrets to the future of the workplace. “We have to maintain per unit energy and balance within the power budget. Since the workstation energy utilisation has stopped, we have taken that and are maintaining the energy requirement in the data centres and maintaining the whole show with skeletal staff. That’s the crux of how data centres will impact the future of work.”
Data Security & Data Sovereignty
With the volume of data growing, data security and data sovereignty is rising as an urgent issue needing our attention. ‘’Like the atomic energy safety issue which if not dealt properly, the data sovereignty issue will lead to a national issue,’’ says Raja Kishore Y, CEO, AP FiberNet.
The main concept of data sovereignty is how the operator handles, treats the data — like in GDPR — and takes measures to protect it. The government is looking at a comprehensive data protection Bill which provides users unprecedented rights over their data. The new Bill stipulates that data created by civilians within India has to be protected by the government. “In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that privacy is a constitutional right of Indian citizens,” says Kishore. When citizens go on a digital path, they leave a visible trail of data, and these are at risk of misutilisation. The law is going to seek exclusive consent of the user and this cannot be violated. The ownership of personal data lies with the user and cannot be taken away. And in all matters, the national interest takes precedence.
From a security point of view, we have to mitigate zero-day vulnerability. The world was witness to the Microsoft and Solarwind issue. “We need to talk more about cyber recovery and not just cyber security.’’ Experts say that enterprises and businesses have to look at segmentation, identity and access management — time-bound and limited access based on roles. Steps have to be taken to mitigate new threats like ransomware and malware attacks and a SOP put in place for recovery. The industry also is in the process of bringing in token-based encryption which renders stolen data unusable. Security will be everyone’s responsibility and not limited to the IT team.
Future of Data Centres
When we’re looking at five years down the line or 10 years down the line it really depends on how the basic science underlying the computing technology is changing. Moore’s law is now well behind us. Engineers have been parallelising the code to achieve what silicon cannot. CMOS too has its limit “Will quantum computing be the answer? Quantum computing applications have already been demonstrated in banking and a few other areas so the big question is: will they actually replace your regular CMOS-based servers,” says Kshitij. “The answer is we don’t know yet but it may happen in the next 10-15 years so there may be a generational shift in the way data is processed.”
However, increasingly, monitoring is going to be sensor driven so there will be a huge number of sensors at every level measuring every parameter — currently data centres tend to measure about 200 parameters that will increase even more. “Automation and bots inside the data centres will enable work which is done by a networking engineer or the infrastructure manager effectively,” says Kshitij.
Then, there are aspects related to storage. There are at least a dozen alternatives in nickel metal hydride and new research in material sciences is throwing up interesting candidates. Depending on how each product changes the monitoring will change, but it has to be integrated and will remain integrated at the software level so remote monitoring systems which are very sensor driven is what the industry is looking for in future.
Coming up with the right uninterrupted power supply is one of the big challenges the edge data centres will face. India’s unique geographical and ecological diversity makes it tough to make a standardised UPS equipment. This coupled with regulatory requirements make a UPS manufacturer’s life very hard. “Given our localisation drive which goes well with India’s ‘Make in India’ programme, we today have 24 products which are being completely manufactured in India,’’ says Venkatraman. “We are also exporting these to other countries.” Schneider actually ships UPS equipment for data centres and cooling equipment to Asia Pacific from its Bangalore facility.
Tackling the Question of Sustainability
With data being touted as the new oil, it is estimated that data centres will consume more than three per cent of the global electrical energy consumption, which is massive. Businesses are trying to find ways to reduce their carbon emissions and actually halve the power consumption overall. This calls for a 3x or 4x more energy efficiency. For this to happen people need to become conscious and hardware needs to talk to software and operate more autonomously.
“The future we believe will be driven by the combination of electricity and digital,” says Venkatraman of Schneider, which recently was recognized as the most sustainable organization in the industry. People will need access to data from their devices from anywhere, anytime and this also means they will need access to electricity anywhere, anytime. Solar to a large extent and supported by wind energy sources are showing immense promise -– thus helping the industry reduce dependence on coal-based power generation. With these taken care, the industry is left with the issue of distribution of power which accounts for bulk of energy loss and thus energy unsustainable practices.
For most companies in the sector this is now a race to the finish in finding a solution to help their committed goal of Net Zero carbon footprint by 2030.
Added to this is the growing concern of handling electronic waste. Companies are exploring ways to recycle components, motherboards so as to reduce dumping of toxic waste using a model called “material lifecycle management.”
Finally, for the industry, going green and embracing sustainable practices is about being in black in terms of revenue and profits. So recycling, research into material science, adopting newer energy sources and replacing coal-based sources are important business issues rather than environmental issues. The tables have turned finally for sustainability and for a change it’s looking good.
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