Here’s a prediction anyone could make about data centers: In 2024, there will be more of them. The math is inescapable given rapid data volume growth over the past decade, and AI is putting that expansion into overdrive. At the same time, there are increasing demands for greener data centers and an overall reduction in carbon footprint. How should the industry address community resistance to new data center locations? And which markets are most likely to see an influx of new data centers? The answers may surprise you. Here are three predictions about where the data center industry is headed in 2024.

1. More data center facilities will incorporate flexible and efficient cooling systems to accommodate higher densities and minimize environmental impact.

Data center leaders are asking engineers for designs that will accommodate higher-density cabinet loads as they transition from traditional all-air cooling methods to direct-to-cabinet cooling systems in anticipation of the impact of AI. As climate concerns grow, there will be continued pressure on data center companies to utilize more efficient cooling methods as a way to reduce their carbon footprint as well.

Data centers are already more efficient than generally realized, especially when compared to other types of commercial buildings. Power at traditional data centers was directed to servers rather than non-compute functions (including cooling) at about a 2-1 ratio. Today, the modern metric, PUE, is trending lower because servers get even more of the total power.

Lowering PUE in new data centers may require a hybrid approach. Liquid is about 40 times more effective as a cooling medium than air, but air is much easier to distribute, so a combination works well. High-density chip deployments that new data center buildings need to meet speed demands can benefit from a hybrid approach with liquid to cool the chips and air to manage general infrastructure cooling. Overall energy consumption won’t decline due to rising demand, but efficiency will improve.1

2. Out of necessity, data center leaders will become better at educating communities.

“Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome is nothing new for data centers — community opposition to data centers locating nearby was a heated, widely covered topic more than a decade ago. The media tends to depict data centers as noisy and dirty, and the industry hasn’t pushed back on that narrative effectively. In 2024, data center leaders will start to do a better job of that out of necessity.

There’s an opportunity to educate communities about how data centers make positive contributions to everyday life by serving up the technology we rely on and offering career paths in a growing industry. Data centers typically don’t contribute many local jobs where they are located, but they are an essential service for the information economy, and designing and building data centers and their hardware components are rewarding and in-demand careers.

So, it’s possible to convey a positive message. The leaders of a recent data center building project did a great job of community outreach, first by making sure the building aesthetics fit the location. They also conducted local outreach to offer the data center as a learning center for local schools, where students could visit to learn how data handling works.

The rising community concern about data centers partly is due to the fact that the size of today’s modern data center makes them far more noticeable to local residents. It’s important for the industry to stress that these new, highly efficient data centers are effectively replacing hundreds of thousands of smaller inefficient legacy facilities that are being decommissioned as companies move to the cloud. Data centers as an industry should also pay more attention to political outreach and explaining how they save energy and reduce carbon in many ways. They are a multibillion-dollar industry with a great story to tell about the role data centers play in facilitating energy efficiency throughout the economy. Things such as facilitating working from home and the millions of commutes and the carbon associated with heavy traffic that is eliminated every day to streaming video rather than and driving to the video store and buying an environmentally unfriendly DVD all contribute significantly to carbon reduction.

3. Data center locations will shift to tertiary markets.

The task of educating communities about the benefits of data centers will become even more urgent in 2024 because data operations will have to expand into new markets. AI will drive the shift as data centers go in search of new locations with available power. The challenge of meeting the power demands of the modern data center became apparent in 2023 and will only get worse in 2024 if firms don’t focus on moving to where power is available. There will also be a move to siting data centers on or adjacent to where the power is generated. Getting “behind the meter” has obvious advantages where it is possible with today’s regulations. If they can’t get the power to the data center, bring the data center to the power! In Northern Virginia, new data center locations that are not already in Dominion’s pipeline are looking at significant delays. Even those that have already been promised power are realizing that the wait for power will be longer than expected. Texas is also a risky option, since the power grid has buckled under strain.

Sunbelt cities like Phoenix might have power constraint issues sooner rather than later due to hotter summers. For data center planners and investors, this will make markets like Denver, Kansas City, Nashville, and Salt Lake City attractive alternatives.

Data centers in 2024 and beyond

Industry growth is a given, which means company decision-makers are creating the future of data centers in 2024 and beyond today. Many of those decisions will have an impact on crucial issues, like energy efficiency and sustainability, how people perceive data centers in their communities, and which locations offer the best power availability and interconnectivity. Keeping these predictions in mind can help data center planners make the right choices.