It’s a Mission Critical tradition to host this roundtable discussion every summer, so we reached out to Ahmed Gokturk, senior vice president of the Critical Infrastructure Solutions division at M.C. Dean; Chris McLean, director of mission critical solutions, M.C. Dean; Kevin Groom, vice president of sales and marketing at IMS Engineered Products; Herb Villa, senior systems consultant for data center solutions at Rittal North America LLC; and three representatives from the Uptime Institute — Andy Lawrence, executive director of research, Rhonda Ascierto, vice president of research, and Christopher Brown, chief technical officer. Hear what they have to say about COVID-19, the supply chain, edge computing, sustainability, and more.
Mission Critical: The mission critical industry was already experiencing change on multiple levels before COVID-19. Can you talk about, say, the top three trends that existed before the pandemic, how they’ve changed because of it, and where you see them headed in the future?
Gokturk: The top three trends or drivers are speed to market, scalability, and cost. The only difference I see in post-COVID-19 is that several facilities are reevaluating upgrades in existing structures to minimize personnel and the possible spread of coronavirus.
Groom: From a manufacturer’s standpoint, the top three trends we have seen are that we have been shipping almost all of our products to colocation facilities, customers are requiring customization, and they are buying racks that are taller and deeper. We do not see the pandemic changing any of these trends.
Lawrence: The biggest single trend in the data center over the past five years has been the rapid build-out of large, hyperscale facilities to support public cloud and internet services. Demand from the giants in this sector — AWS, Google, and Microsoft, among others — is reshaping the industry. The giant new builds require new skills, equipment, power, space, and connectivity on a previously unimagined scale. Colocation growth is driven by this and so are the designs and economics.
A second big trend is the move to the edge, driven by the IoT, home internet services, and expected 5G-related demand. There is strong demand for regional or metro edge facilities — near the population and end users but not at the last mile.
A third trend is the ongoing and anticipated skills shortage: designers, engineers, and operators are in short supply, and this will get far worse before it gets better. Automation and remote operation, another big trend, will only gradually pick up the load.
The trends toward greater cloud use and edge demand are tectonic in scale; it is not clear the pandemic will stand out as a major driver over time.
The pandemic will, however, exacerbate the skills shortage, because of greater need to operate separate teams that do not intermingle. It is likely that organizations will take more proactive measures to introduce remote working/monitoring and introduce new operational processes to reduce the number of staff needed on-site.
McLean: The top three trends are the limited availability of skilled labor, aggressive schedules, and increased power density. We have been trying to put more power and heat rejection into smaller spaces with fewer qualified people. With social distancing limitations and fewer people in work areas, detailed design and modular construction can help us solve all three problems now. We consider it a force multiplier for the future.
Villa: The top three trends continue to be:
- The development of the edge.
- Continued growth of hyperscale/cloud data centers.
- The convergence from the hyperlocal to the hyperscale, which may not be seen as “a trend” but is critical as edge computing meshes with the core.
What has changed in the age of COVID-19 is that everyone has gained a greater appreciation of just how interconnected we are and how much we rely on fast, reliable, and safe access to information and each other (Zoom anyone?).
Mission Critical: What aspect of the industry would you say has been impacted most by the pandemic?
Gokturk: Increased precautions on admitting personnel in operating data centers and minimal disruption to the supply chain.
Lawrence: Uptime Institute has conducted surveys of operators around the world, and it is very clear that the biggest single concern for them is to manage infections and keep staff safe/healthy.
McLean: The traditional stick-built process and execution has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Solving problems with a large crew and multiple trades on-site while maintaining 6 feet of social distancing is a major issue the industry faces today. Additionally, given the high demand and speed to market, the traditional method is not designed to meet these changing requirements.
Villa: While critical operations have been maintained, there has been a reduction in the day-to-day operations at both the facility and operational levels. We have managed to stay up and running so far, but I’m not too sure we can for much longer. I am not saying the internet is just going to stop working, or we would see the equivalent of a financial crash in the IT space. But, I think we are pushing the limits and may have to be prepared for the consequences.
Mission Critical: I have heard several people say that although they have not necessarily experienced any issues as of yet, they anticipate some major disruptions to the supply chain in the near future. What are your thoughts on that, and do you have any advice on how to ease the burden?
Brown: There are three main areas where supply chain disruption was anticipated: staffing, cleaning supplies and PPE, and equipment and components.
Early on in the pandemic response, cleaning supplies and PPE were in a limited supply. This was due to the sudden increase in demand from every industry, especially health care.
Staffing was impacted a bit due to the lack of ability to source ready-to-go personnel in a short period of time.
Another area of concern is equipment and components, where, overall, we have yet to see significant impact. In general, the data center industry is accustomed to keeping spare parts on hand, and distributors have some stock in a warehouse. This has allowed for some supply even while factories were shut down. As long as the industry can continue to source equipment and components, and international trade is not halted, this is unlikely to be an issue.
McLean: Some industries are already seeing supply chain disruption. It is just a matter of time before it hits the construction industry. The bigger contracting firms that warehouse, build modularly, and have mature distribution will not be as affected as smaller firms that are purchasing just in time to meet the demand. Prudent planning and long-term forecasting will definitely be a differentiator.
Villa: Rittal has been designated as a critical service, so we were able to continue to operate our manufacturing facilities both domestically and globally, which I think is true for almost all of the other vendors in the IT space. If there is a disruption in the supply chain, it can be caused by two events: lack of transportation and distracted customers.
Mission Critical: The labor shortage has been an issue for years, and it’s not something that simply can’t be solved overnight. With that being said, social distancing has created awareness around data centers and the essential workers that maintain them. How can the industry work together to build on that momentum?
McLean: The labor shortage cuts a few ways. Booming metro areas require more labor and large remote sites pull from the same talent pool. These are just two of the many factors that cause interruptions or a shortage of skilled personnel in data centers. As an industry, we need to attract, train, and retain people. The construction and manufacturing industry is still too male-dominated. We should create more opportunities for women to enter and excel in construction, manufacturing, and technical trades.
Villa: The same way every other industry and market has — adapt. As much as I hate to use the phrase “new normal” we are going to be in it for some time. Who knows how long? It may sound cliché – we will get through this and we will adjust. This is bad. It will get better.
Mission Critical: Tell me what it means to be a part of this industry as if you were explaining it to a gym full of students who were mesmerized by your story.
Gokturk: It’s a great time to be in the technology, engineering, and construction field, where the IoT requires us to understand cyberphysical applications, an environment to stretch and apply new technologies, and building methods.
Villa: My story is to tell the kids what it was like to live without instant everything — no cell phones, Netflix, TikTok, Instagram, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, PS4s, laptops — no internet. And then I would go on to explain how I have seen this explosion of invention and innovation — from my first PC (IBM PC AT and a 286 chip), my first cell phone (no bag, but it did have a portable base and squiggly antenna on my car) to today where I have more processing horsepower in my Ford Edge than all the computers NASA had to put a man on the moon. And that it has been a great ride. And can’t wait to see what’s next.
Mission Critical: What are some of the most challenging aspects facing the mission critical industry today, and can you share any strategies on how to overcome them?
Ascierto: Demand for digital services has seen sustained, exceptional growth over the past few years, and, with it, energy consumption has risen steadily as well. This has given rise to concerns about the ability of the energy industry to effectively supply data centers in some geographies — and the continuing worries about the sector’s growing carbon footprint.
For sure, the sector has made tremendous gains with energy-efficient designs and technologies and the use of more renewable power sources. However, given the exponential rate of growth, it is likely that demand for digital services will continue to substantially outpace the gains from efficiency practices.
The data center staffing crisis is worsening, according to the Uptime Institute’s data. Among the tactics being deployed by some to addresses the challenge are broadening recruitment strategies and overhauling hiring policies, on-the-job training and cross-training, comprehensive succession planning, and coordinating with local colleges/institutions.
Gokturk: Definitely demand — responding to the speed-to-market challenges through integrated and modular solutions while reducing costs.
McLean: Being able to physically access these facilities that are often in remote locations and limitations on the number of personnel disrupts the ability to provide the full breadth of services needed to design, manage, build, and commission critical facilities.
Mission Critical: What efforts does your company make to contribute to sustainability and how do you contribute on a personal level?
Gokturk: M.C. Dean invests in engineering, technology, and construction techniques to advance LEAN construction — removing waste from sites by delivering fit-for-purpose modular solutions coupled with designs that minimize the carbon footprint for the full life cycle of the facility.
McLean: Sustainability is about the sum of all the efforts taken to create as little negative impact on the planet as possible. Our modular construction practice yields an approximate industry low of 8% waste that remains at our facility as compared to the 30% average created for similar stick-built projects. That decrease in physical waste is compounded by the reduction in deliveries, road congestion and damage, fuel emissions, and other sustainability-driving practices built into our processes.
Villa: For Rittal, that answer will come from headquarters. I hope we do a good job, but they can explain better. For me, I just try to be good — recycle, utilize mass transit, use the digital tools I mentioned previously (except for the Kardashians) and hopefully set a good example with knowledge and experience.
Mission Critical: In terms of standards and regulations, what changes are in the pipeline?
Gokturk: I expect that the Uptime Institute will remain as the performance-based guide followed by ANSI/BICSI and ANSI/TIA for network and infrastructure. These will continue to develop and adapt as new technologies mature. We may see more involvement from localities in terms of zoning restrictions and the placement of data centers.
Lawrence: The long-term global move to automation and outsourcing will likely lead to greater need for standards. In the data center and infrastructure, standardization is strong is some areas but weak in others — greater interoperability and collaboration is still needed.
As the world moves to greater use of colocation, cloud, and outsourcing, and more technology is owned and operated where it can be seen or easily accessed, Uptime Institute expects to see greater use of third verification/assessments and verification.
McLean: As the sites get larger, so does the ability to generate industrial noise and major emissions to remote places that never had to consider those issues before. We need to focus on controlling and mitigating wind wake modeling, air entrainment of pollutants, and industrial noise closer to denser population zones.
Mission Critical: As edge computing gains popularity, how do you see the construction market shifting? Will we continue to see large concentrations of facilities in major markets like today, or will more individual sites pop up in isolated areas?
Ascierto: The opportunity is to supply, build, or operate local edge data centers — small micro data centers that are designed to operate near the point of use, supporting applications that are not suited to run in big, remote data centers, even in mid-sized regional colocation data centers. Unlike most larger data centers, micro data centers will mostly be built, configured, and tested in a factory and delivered on a truck. Typical sizes will be 50 to 400 kW, and there are expected to be a lot of them. Edge micro data centers will be managed remotely by software and AI to orchestrate edge workloads in a programmable way. Colos, clouds, carriers, and specialists are focusing on new capabilities.
As demand for edge computing grows, it will boost demand across most all types of data centers. Today’s providers of large-scale data center and network capacity will clearly play a major role. Many (if not most) large and medium-sized data centers, such as colocation facilities, are already sited deliberately or fortuitously near where most edge data is either generated or consumed, at the regional edge. In terms of latency, bandwidth, and connectivity, the regional edge is typically in the next “zone” from the local edge, where sub-millisecond or low-single-digit latency is required (see Figure 1).
In spite of the anticipated demand for micro data centers at the local edge, many edge applications will not require the very low level of latency that the local edge delivers and could be probably be supported by data centers at the regional level.
By proxy of their location and proliferation, colocation providers will play a key role at the regional edge. Colo data centers offer near-local storage, analysis, and integration of edge data and, increasingly, interconnections for network peering at the edge. Many are positioning their interconnected facilities as having cost and performance benefits over centralized enterprise and public cloud models. More are offering virtual interconnects and combining interconnection and colo with edge services, such as tiered cloud-integrated storage. And they are building and buying capacity in new regions to expand their footprints in the regional edge. Colos are also home to content distribution network (CDN) providers, which are also set to play a big part in the expansion of the edge.
Big cloud computing providers will also play a role. Hyperscale data centers in the core will continue to grow, driven by enterprise applications, archiving, and other workloads, and so will cloud-to-cloud traffic. All are jockeying for early edge positions with proprietary edge cloud platforms.
Gokturk: I believe the market will continue to trend to modular and scalable solutions with a focus on shortening time to market and reducing construction costs. This model and focus will apply to both concentrated mega facilities and individual pop-up sites.
McLean: We will still see massive sites, but if a large population of the workforce continues to be remote and returns to a central office less frequently, the need for edge, speed, and on-ramps will increase considerably. As for commercial office contracts, I see micro-edge sites taking their place and creating a more local, urban fabric.
Villa: It all depends on your definition of edge computing. Is it a physical installation or application-based? Is it in a hyperscale/enterprise data center, an edge data center, or a standalone system at the far reaches of a mesh network? Regardless of where or what you think it is, there will still be an increasing demand for large, traditional data centers clustered even more tightly together in the major markets. These will form the core of the network to support better distribution further out and away from these locations.
There will also be demand for additional space in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities — further away from the hub locations but not all the way to the edge. These will take the form of an edge or spine data center — still all the physical infrastructure of a traditional space but on a slightly smaller scale. This layer will allow global players to locate regional installations, say 10 to 50 footprints in numerous markets but still connect back to the core. If my main data center is in New York, but I need to be in Singapore, these sites are my edge — far away from my core but still part of my network. These regional extensions out from the hyperscale space will drive construction demand in many more markets, but these will still be built in the traditional model: large white space, multiple power feeds, multiple carriers, backup generators, UPS, facility-based climate control, high security, 7x24 staffing, Tier 3 or even Tier 4 compliance, and a minimum of N+1 redundancy.
We can extend this out even further with pre-engineered and/or preconfigured solutions — modular or container data centers. These form a spine network to get out to the standalone edge installations on the factory floor, transit system, cell tower, etc. Now, we are looking at supporting no more than 10 to 15 footprints in even more remote locations but in prepackaged systems — put them on a truck or two, drive them out to wherever, pick them up with a crane, and put them in place. Run some power and connectivity, and you are ready to go. However these will not have the luxury of the typical support systems we see in a traditional data center.
These systems will also add to the construction market, just on a different scale. There should be enough business out there to keep all of us busy for a long time.
I just think “edge” is a bit of an overused term — edge is, today, where the cloud was six years ago. All of a sudden, we had a name — the cloud — and everyone had to be on the cloud, in the cloud, at the cloud, etc. The cloud was always there — large scale data centers. But, give it a name, get on the bandwagon. This is where edge is today — it now has a name. But there were always data centers in Omaha, Nebraska, Jacksonville, Florida, etc. Now, they are edge data centers, and we will need more.
Mission Critical: For those who are new to the industry and may not know where to go, can you share your top five most trusted resources for identifying industry trends, continuing education, and exchanging ideas.
Brown: We believe the sources like our own website, www.uptimeinstitute.com, or 7x24 provide excellent resources. 7x24 and its International Data Center Day help people better understand our industry no matter what their familiarity level may be.
McLean: I would recommend publications such as Mission Critical magazine; industry events — local and national like 7x24 Exchange; business networking and local community groups through meetup.com; and end-user and vendor-provided free or paid webinars.
Villa:I like the various industry organizations — ASHRAE, BICSI, Uptime Institute, etc. They all keep up to date on their information and also provide educational material. Vertical industry organizations (government, health care, supercomputing, etc.) also provide focused information on what is happening in their respective worlds. Some social networking is also good. The problem is there is just so much out there, and I am sure that what I use is good for me but maybe not as beneficial for someone else in a different function, market, or industry.