COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the world moved online seemingly overnight in the face of COVID-19, the criticality of data centers and the unrelenting reliance on them across all walks of life became an enduring storyline of the crisis. This reality will manifest in new ways in 2021 as the data center and the information ecosystem orbiting it emerge from the pandemic with a fourth utility criticality, complete with all the expectations and responsibilities that implies. This is among the emerging 2021 data center trends identified by experts from Vertiv.
Data centers have long been held to high availability standards, but the shift toward utility-like status will be noticeable in two ways. First, those 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.
“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,” said Gary Niederpruem, chief strategy and development officer for Vertiv. “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.”
The pandemic effectively established a new baseline for digital infrastructure as the industry adjusts to and eventually moves beyond the global shutdown. Against this backdrop, Vertiv’s experts identified several other emerging trends to watch in 2021, including the following.
COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on the workforce and the IT ecosystem that’s supporting the new work-from-home (WFH) model. Vertiv experts expect the pandemic-motivated investments in IT infrastructure to continue and expand, enabling more secure, reliable, and efficient remote work capabilities. Remote visibility and management will become paramount to the success of these WFH models. Already, remote service capabilities have emerged to minimize the need for on-site service calls, and those practices are likely to continue long after the pandemic. Any cautious steps taken early in the crisis will be accelerated as the pandemic pushes into 2021 and organizations accept these changes not as a temporary detour, but rather a permanent adjustment to the way we work and do business. Over time, what is done in-person versus remotely will change, and the change will be driven by customers looking to minimize their on-site presence. That places a premium on connectivity, remote monitoring, data analytics, and even artificial intelligence to make decisions.
“Recovery requires a change in mindset for most organizations,” said John-David Lovelock, distinguished research vice president at Gartner, in a recent statement. “There is no bouncing back. There needs to be a reset focused on moving forward.”
Today’s edge is more critical and more complex — more of an extension of the data center rather than the glorified IT closet of the past. 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 edge sites. This includes greater intelligence and control, an increased emphasis on availability and thermal management, and more attention to energy efficiency across systems.
In the early stages of 5G planning and launches, the discussion has focused on the ultimate benefits of the technology — increased bandwidth and reduced latency — and the applications it will enable. But, as many countries begin their 5G rollouts in 2021 and the early adopters start to drive breadth and scale, the focus will shift to efficiency strategies. The network densification necessary to fully realize the promise of 5G unavoidably adds to the increased energy demands — estimated to be 3.5 times more than 4G. The coming year will see greater focus on managing that significant increase in energy consumption by exploring more efficient products and practices.
5G is one piece of a broader sustainability story. As the proliferation of data centers continues to accelerate, especially in the hyperscale space, cloud and colocation providers are facing increased scrutiny for their energy and water usage. The amplification of the climate change conversation and shifting political winds in the U.S. and globally will only add to the focus on the data center industry, which accounts for approximately 1% of global energy consumption. The coming year will see a wave of innovation focused on energy efficiency across the data center ecosystem. The benefits for data center operators are clear, 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. Look for important innovations across the data center infrastructure space, especially in the area of thermal management.