If we had a conversation at this time last year, just as OpenAI released ChatGPT into the wild, I might have said the collective fervour around generative AI was nearly as overhyped as the metaverse was in 2021. A year later, it’s become clear that AI technology is revolutionary, and is setting up a dramatic effect on data centre construction and deployments, and on network architecture design in general.
The reality is our insatiable expansion of data consumption and appetite for cloud-based services, accelerated by the glitzy promises of generative AI. This means the need for robust and secure data storage, faster data transfer, higher compute intensity, and increased data centre efficiency have never been more paramount and our dependence on data centres is only going to increase.
Here are four key trends I believe will continue to impact and influence data centre operations in 2024.
1. No surprise, generative AI will drive aggressive and expanded data centre build-out According to Synergy Research Group, analysts anticipate hyperscale data centre footprints will grow threefold in the next five to six years to accommodate the demands of generative AI. One needs only consider the billions of dollars committed recently by several tech giants globally toward the cultivation of more advanced AI capabilities to understand how seriously the industry views AI’s potential. In India as well, 88% of Indian business leaders are planning to invest more in AI, Generative AI in next 12-18 months as per a recent Capgemini report.
Speed to market—how quickly hyperscalers, enterprises and operators can get data centres up and running—will continue to be equal parts challenge and competitive advantage. Powered by enormous data increases and further intensified by the significantly higher compute of generative AI applications and workloads, organisations must broadly rethink how they plan, design and construct new facilities (or refurbish existing locations) to not only meet today’s increased demand but anticipate how that will look in the months and years ahead.
But here’s the catch…
2. Sustainability will save or sink data centre deploymentsWith heightened awareness in boardrooms of companies’ climate impacts, enterprises must recognise and implement highly efficient and sustainable practices across all three levels of the data centre lifecycle—site location, construction, and operation—while avoiding material cost increases to day-to-day operations. In India the power consumption of data centres is expected to reach nearly 5 gigawatts over next six to seven making sustainability critical. Anything that draws a milliwatt of electricity or power must be optimised, from chips, servers, switches, and cooling systems to the vending machine in the break room. It’s a challenge increasingly aggravated by compute-heavy generative AI workloads.
The current environment is one that values ecological and social responsibility as much as economic prosperity. While plenty of companies have invested resources to address their direct carbon footprint, we’ll continue to see increased scrutiny in 2024 on indirect footprints as well, from supply chain impacts all the way down to carbon declarations of individual products and materials purchased for data centre operations.
That said, current macroeconomic headwinds continue to put enormous pressure on enterprise leaders to perform a delicate dance—implement sustainable practices and processes without increasing costs or, most importantly, impacting profitability.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2021 Global Investor ESG Survey, 81% of investors would accept no more than one percentage point less in investment returns for pursuit of ESG goals, with nearly half (49%) unwilling to accept any reduction in returns.
3. The global regulatory tug of war on data centres will increase
We’ll continue to witness a tug of war between lawmakers and corporations over two key data centre sticking points—sustainability (the land and energy needed to operate) and data sovereignty (where and how data is stored).On one hand, latency demands and data sovereignty laws will force data centres into more localised areas. On the other hand, despite their necessary role to avoid data being shared and processed abroad, data centres are likely to face stiff resistance from elected officials and distrust from local communities. Of course, an aggravating factor in this debate is and will continue to be AI, particularly as more enterprises endeavour to develop and deploy this technology into their operational processes while they maintain heightened awareness about the integrity of the data used to train their models.
What will undoubtedly challenge this space further are the inevitable AI regulations that continue to slowly build momentum in Washington, including U.S. President Biden’s recent executive order, the AI Act in the EU, and across other local, regional, national, and transnational jurisdictions. The Indian government is also focused on building the AI regulation framework. Right now, enterprises and data centre operators remain firmly in a holding pattern as to how these proposed guardrails will shake out and what their impacts will be on AI exploration, development and deployment.
4. The silver bullet: efficiency is the only way forward
In the broader technology space, it’s rare that we stumble across a silver bullet, a perfect, bespoke solution, but for the myriad of hurdles data centres face in 2024, all pathways appear to lead to a single, intrinsic solution—efficiency.More efficient data centres—from a design, power usage, and power density perspective—mean fewer are needed, thus resulting in less construction and maintenance burden. More efficiently designed “plug-and-play” infrastructure products and architectures are easier to install, which translates to less time spent—and less reliance on highly skilled labour.
From a sustainability standpoint, more efficient data centres that leverage a combination of renewable energy sources—wind, solar, geothermal, hydro/tidal, and even safe, reliable nuclear power—mean less reliance on potentially scarce local power sources. AI and machine learning advancements further advance this efficiency by seamlessly pinpointing and addressing power-intensive compute hotspots. Additionally, we’ll see a shift to cradle-to-cradle rather than traditional cradle-to-grave product life cycles to limit waste, where data centre components that are regularly upgraded, such as servers and switches, will filter into a robust reuse/recycle market rather than going direct to landfills.
Finally, as competing technology innovations, labour, sustainability, macroeconomic conditions, and regulatory pressures put the squeeze on hyperscale, enterprises, and operators, an unrelenting global appetite must be balanced by an intransigent commitment to efficiency—throughout the location/discovery, construction/design, and operations/management phases—to power data centre growth and expansion in 2024.
– Mylaraiah JN, Vice President, Enterprise Business, India & SAARC, CommScope