This year, we’re seeing the accelerated deployment of new and evolving technologies in the data center. Key global trends influencing these deployments include the growing demand for higher-performance networks, increased management efficiency, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay-at-home orders and a big drop in on-site retail shopping has prompted a major increase in online sales and significantly impacted data centers. Let’s take a closer look at these trends below.

Cloud Migration

In the absence of “business as usual,” enterprises and small businesses are moving to the cloud, and this trend will only accelerate in the future, no matter what happens with COVID-19. Companies that were eyeing an eventual migration are now quickly moving to adopt a cloud-based paradigm for their businesses. Indeed, many companies that told workers to stay home have adopted remote working policies that rely on cloud-based applications, while retailers are following the lead of industry giants like Amazon and Alibaba in shifting sales tools to the cloud. In fact, these online retailers are seeing triple-digit profit growth thanks to the pandemic.

Another cloud-related trend we’ve observed is accelerated adoption of private cloud infrastructure. Not too long ago, the prevailing wisdom was that everything would ultimately move to the public cloud. However, many companies have realized they need to keep financial, health care, and other sensitive information in private clouds. Some applications simply can’t be converted to the public cloud, while companies that maintain large data centers are finding private clouds less expensive than public clouds.

That said, we’re also seeing most enterprises adopting hybrid mixes of public and private clouds for their applications and data as a standard form of practice.

AI Adoption

Incorporation of AI applications has been an ongoing trend for data centers, and we see no sign of this slowing down in 2021. Much of this will be related to COVID-19, although applications rolled out during the pandemic will likely remain once it passes. AI is being used to drive safety and security applications, like automatic temperature checks, touchless authorization, payment and control systems, and traffic monitoring, for example. AI is also being implemented for building management systems, such as HVAC control and lighting.

Sophisticated AI algorithms are developed by processing large amounts of data, or machine language (ML) training sets. For example, millions of faces could be scanned to provide an algorithm with a comprehensive understanding of the nuances of human expression. Once created, these completed algorithms could be tasked with reacting to massive amounts of real-time information such as facial tics, furrowed brows, and pupil dilation.

AI/ML data is typically housed in very large data lakes. Specialized servers equipped with accelerators — GPUs, for example — are ideally suited to processing AI/ML tasks. Data center networks are ramping up bandwidth to feed these systems with very large data pipes, enabling the cost-effective development of AI tools.

IoT Deployments

IoT applications are rapidly proliferating as companies seek to better manage facilities and occupants. Newer connectivity protocols like LTE-M and Zigbee are enabling wireless sensors for temperature, water use, room occupancy, HVAC control, and other applications, while power over Ethernet (PoE) is enabling everything from Wi-Fi access points to surveillance cameras.

IoT provides critical data that drives the optimization of manufacturing for example, feeding a trend to apply AI to process controls. In cases where the communication is between machines, data communication systems must provide very low delay or latency. Latency is a primary reason that new smaller distributed systems or edge data centers are deployed in close proximity to their supported systems. This trend is accelerating the deployment of distributed network facilities to support a large number of edge applications.

As IoT applications continue to multiply, the amount of data that will be generated is expected to grow exponentially. Processing this data locally, close to the edge, is perhaps the most effective way of dealing with IoT data. Gartner has predicted that approximately 65% of all servers will be deployed in edge facilities by 2025.

The Drive to Single-Mode Fiber

Remote workers and shoppers demand immediate response times, and this will drive widespread adoption of single-mode fiber. Single-mode fiber has been around for years, but as data centers ramp adoption of 400G Ethernet in 2021, we will see deployments accelerate. Adoption was somewhat slowed in 2020 due to the difficulty of obtaining components from China, but this is expected to change in 2021.

Data center capacity must continue to grow, however there must also be a continuous improvement in efficiency. This is precisely why fiber networks are shifting the bandwidth of network optics up, creating a need for more efficient network switching elements and driving the use of “fiber to the server” as previous generations of copper cabling reach speed and distance limitations. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE 802.3db task force is targeting 100, 200 and 400Gbps speeds for short reach server connections which will aid in the development of lower cost vertica-cavity, surface-emitting laser (VCSEL) based optics.   

Accommodating remote workers and customers, making facilities safer and more efficient, and driving higher performance will be the hallmarks of data center trends. Companies that pursue these initiatives will be at the forefront of digital transformation as the industry’s evolution continues.