Aligning the data centre to meet the demands of smart cities and IoT

Smart cities and the Internet of Things are front of mind lately. Research from KPMG indicates Australia’s economy will benefit to the tune of $120 billion annually by the year 2025 from IoT and smart city deployments. The building blocks to get there mean a serious rethink of how our IT infrastructure is designed and deployed, and a greater focus on initiatives that increase capacity and energy efficiency at the same time. Developing these building blocks requires the input of electrical and engineering professionals to help us meet the ‘always-on’ expectations of technology.

The journey to IoT and smart cities

2018 is the year when we are finally seeing real-life IoT and smart city applications bear fruit. It’s happening mostly in isolation, but slowly we’re starting to see separate initiatives come together to give us an idea of what a more connected future world looks like.

In New South Wales under the Smart Move project, for example, Newcastle is developing initiatives such as technology-fitted bus stops that provide users with more information — real-time schedules, how many seats are available, etc. The city is also looking to embed real-time traffic analysis into roads and intersections to ensure that, for example, emergency vehicles get green lights.

Up in Darwin, our most northerly capital city is undertaking a $10 million program to ‘switch on the city’ and boost the economy. This includes upgrading street lighting to LED on ‘smart’ columns that can adjust lighting to help deter street crime.

These are just some examples, and before we know it we’ll be living in the smart cities we’ve anticipated for so long. But before that, there’s work to be done to put the right IT infrastructure in place to make sure they work.

Ramping up the edge

The data centre is changing in line with the IoT and smart city movement. We’ve long talked about the edge of the network and its importance in this changing landscape, but the prospect of IoT and smart cities means getting it right is more important than ever.

While we’ve labelled the term smart ‘cities’, the truth is that we expect the features and benefits of these cities to be felt everywhere, including remote areas. In Australia, this presents a unique challenge.

Our uniquely dispersed population means that there are often thousands of kilometres between smaller rural towns and major cities. We can’t expect these towns to rely on data centres or networks linked to major cities to provide smart city-like services. They have to be able to go it alone.

Smaller towns and rural areas will need smaller, secure, ‘modular’ data centres to match and process the bulk of data required for IoT and smart city applications right there on the edge where the data is created.

That means that more than most countries, we’ve got to get it right.

Getting smart on the environment

One of the key goals of smart cities is to solve some of the environmental challenges we’ve created for our planet over the years.

With innovation in play or on the horizon, such as applications that track individual or corporate carbon footprints and advise on how to reduce them, autonomous electric vehicles or smarter use of renewable resources, our smart cities promise to improve our energy efficiency.

But there are simpler ways to improve energy efficiency now that many organisations are missing. We estimate that data centres account for almost 5% of the energy used in Australia, and that rate is increasing as we develop more IT-intensive digital services such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning and run them on more and more devices.

Modular data centres certainly have an edge — their power usage effectiveness (PUE) numbers tend to be much lower than a traditional data centre. But we’ll always need that larger, core data centre in the mix as the heartbeat of any large organisation’s digital services. There’s plenty of work that can be done here to increase energy efficiency.

Data centre optimisation, a process that monitors how energy is used throughout the entire data centre, can make a huge difference. From there, the data centre can be ‘retuned’ with smarter cooling solutions, for example. At Vertiv, we have seen optimisation savings in some instances as high as 50%. We’re talking the potential equivalent of taking dozens or more houses off the grid for each data centre that goes through this process.

Naturally, this exercise also brings considerable savings into an organisation. Any cost savings you can make with energy consumption go straight to the bottom line.

Performing a data centre optimisation exercise can also lead to large one-time payments through initiatives such as the New South Wales energy savings certificate (ESC) payment and similar initiatives in other states. These reimbursements mean the government is prepared to match dollar-for-dollar efficiency spend.

These changes are more important than ever — across Australia, we experienced significant rises in our energy bills last year, and rumours are rife that we could be in for the same again in 2018.

Moreover, data centre optimisation also leads to a significant increase in IT capacity, a further bonus for implementing more digital services and positioning organisations to take advantage of the new IoT landscape.

The ‘Gen 4’ data centre

As edge and core data centres combine, along with public cloud and co-location, we’re starting to see the emergence of the ‘Gen 4’ data centre.

The necessary deeper connection between edge and core is elevating these architectures beyond simple distributed networks as we’ve known them to date.

We’re already seeing this happen with innovative architectures delivering near real-time capacity in scalable, economical modules that leverage optimised thermal solutions, high-density power supplies, a range of batteries and advanced power distribution units.

Bringing it all together are advanced monitoring and management technologies that allow the new data centre environment to be controlled from a single pane of glass.

This means hundreds or even thousands of distributed IT nodes operate as a unit, reducing latency and up-front costs. Utilisation rates are increased, removing complexity and enabling organisations to add network-connected IT capacity where they need it.

Essentially, it means more choice for organisations, and engineers and electrical professionals who can be part of providing that choice will be a vital asset to organisations navigating their own IoT paths.

Meeting the new expectations of technology

The bottom line is that smart cities and IoT are almost here. The roles of electrical professionals and engineers need to adapt to meet the infrastructure and data centre needs of this new era.

Businesses and people’s tolerance for failure and outages is diminishing quickly. They will expect that all the new digital services and connected landscape will just work.

But those of us in the industry know that there is a careful recipe of infrastructure, resilience, security and redundancy to be thought through and implemented before we can live up to that expectation.