The word “unprecedented” has been used a lot over the last year. But it rings particularly true when it comes to the growth in demand for data. A recent report from OpenVault showed that data usage increased by almost 50% by the end of the first quarter in 2020 when compared to the same period in 2019, largely driven by an exponential increase in demand for content delivery in entertainment, education, and commerce.
And 2021 shows no signs of slowing down. The increased connectivity promised by 5G brings along increased usage with it, so what does that mean for security and sustainability — the two biggest challenges facing the data center industry?
International Data Corp. (IDC) predicts that the collective sum of the world’s data will grow from 33 zettabytes (ZB) today to 175 ZB by 2025 (with 90 ZB of data created on IoT devices). As the processing of billions of lines of data becomes the norm, security will become a significant challenge.
In fact, a global survey of 4,200 IT leaders by Harvey Nash and KPMG found that four in 10 companies reported a rise in cyberattacks in 2020, and 83% of businesses reported an increase in phishing attempts. On top of this, 62% reported an increase in malware attacks.
In response to the rise in cyber threats, 47% of IT leaders have stepped up their digital offerings, as businesses look for more sophisticated data processing, infrastructure, and security services, such as AI, machine learning, blockchain, and automation. At the same time, small-scale implementations of AI and machine learning jumped up to 24% in August 2020.
Now more than ever, people rely on data centers, so cyberattacks can be detrimental. A decade ago, data centers focused on securing their physical perimeter to protect the data they stored and managed. Today, the cybersecurity landscape is diverse, so what was sensible then is now alarmingly insufficient.
To operate dependably and efficiently, data centers require their electric infrastructure, as
well as the building automation and industrial control systems that manage that infrastructure, to deliver an uninterrupted power supply. And, while the integration of operational technology with information technology leads to enhanced reliability, control, and performance, in some cases — if not managed properly — it can expose the data center to cyber threats.
Research conducted in late 2019 by the Ponemon Institute revealed 60% of breaches that occurred over the previous two years could have been prevented if a patch had been applied in time.
Over the next decade, cyber threats will continue as data usage increases and cloud adoption expands. That’s why data center operators need to implement solutions that resolve the most challenging cybersecurity challenges.
Although data centers have managed to keep their collective power demand at about 2% of the world’s electricity use (according to the U.S. Data Center Energy Usage Report), their energy consumption could grow exponentially as computationally intensive applications, such as video on demand, autonomous vehicles, and advanced 5G technology, gain wider popularity. To manage these challenges, data centers will need to implement every possible strategy to maximize their energy efficiency. Key to this is the exploitation of some fairly low-hanging fruit, like running data centers at higher temperatures, using virtualization to cut down on the number of underutilized servers, installing efficient UPS systems, and controlling fan loads with frequency drives.
Other factors have contributed to keeping data center power demand in check. For instance, servers, storage devices, and infrastructures have become steadily more efficient. The industry has also benefited from the trend toward larger and more efficient cloud and hyperscale facilities. The latter, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), consume proportionally much less energy for cooling compared to smaller data centers and represent a steadily growing proportion of all data traffic.
However, striving for the ultra-high efficiencies found at the state-of-the-art data centers of large, web-based companies is usually not technically or economically feasible.
So, here are some short-term, tactical actions that can yield significant energy savings.
- Minimize idle IT equipment — IT equipment tends to be very lightly used relative to its capacity. But, when equipment is idle, it still consumes a significant portion of the power it would draw at maximum utilization. One approach to dealing with this is distributed computing, which links computers to work as if they were a single machine. Scaling up the number of data centers that work together increases their processing power, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for separate facilities for specific applications.
- Utilize virtualization — Virtualization can bring great benefits for most data centers by improving hardware utilization and enabling a reduction in the number of power-consuming servers and storage devices. It can also improve server use from an average of 10 to 20% to at least 50 to 60%.
- Consolidate — At the server level, blade servers can drive consolidation as they provide more processing output per unit of power consumed. Consolidating storage provides another opportunity. Since larger disk drives are more energy efficient, consolidating storage improves memory utilization while reducing power consumption. Finally, if underutilized data centers can be consolidated in one location, operators can reap vast savings by sharing cooling and back-up systems to support loads.
- Manage CPU power usage — More than 50% of the power required to run a server is used by its CPU. Most CPUs have power-management features that optimize power consumption by dynamically switching among multiple performance states based on utilization. By dynamically ratcheting down processor voltage and frequency outside of peak performance tasks, CPUs can minimize energy waste.
- Distribute power at different voltages — To adhere to global standards, virtually all IT equipment is designed to work with input power voltages ranging from 100 to 240 VAC. The higher the voltage, the more efficient the unit. By operating a UPS at 240/415 V, three-phase, four-wire output power, a server can be fed directly, and an incremental 2% reduction in facility energy can be achieved. To more efficiently distribute the megawatts of power required in a larger colocation or cloud data center, some customers are even considering moving to medium voltage (MV) for their UPS systems.
- Adopt best cooling practices — Cooling systems contribute as much as 30% to 60% of average data center utility costs. Traditional air-cooled systems have proven to be effective at maintaining a safe, controlled environment at rack densities of 2- to 3-kW per rack all the way to 25-kW per rack. But operators are now aspiring to create an environment that can support densities in excess of 30 to 50 kW. In these cases, alternate cooling systems, such as rear door heat exchangers, may provide a better solution.
- Plug into the smart grid — Smart grids enable two-way energy and information flows to create an automated and distributed power delivery network. Data center operators can not only draw clean power from the grid, they can also install renewable power generators at a facility to become an occasional power supplier.
Taken together, all of these improvements can add up to a very significant energy-reduction impact, that will protect data centers now and in the future.
As a result of the ever-increasing thirst for connectivity, the data center landscape has grown from an IT support system to an on-demand, scalable service — a truly mission critical industry that enables economies to keep working and families to stay connected. However, this increase in connectivity will inevitably bring new challenges to protect against cyber threats and curb environment impact. By adopting a focused approach and investing in the most effective technologies, data center operators can usher in the “decade of data” and make every watt count.