Micro data centres doing the bridgework for IoT


The fight for data centre efficiency is a never ending one. Yet despite the best laid plans, data centre architectures continue to go through multiple iterations before achieving a functional end.

The latest concept that is gaining attention with enterprises and small businesses alike is the micro data centre (mDC). Some will argue that micro data centres are no different than the traditional self-contained data centres housed in a shipping container for easy transport which have been around for years.

There is a distinction however that is becoming increasingly relevant in a world where data traffic is spiraling out of control. The basic premise that distinguishes it from a conventional prefabricated model is size. The mDC is a self-contained, built-for purpose, secure computing environment in a single rack enclosure that has all the storage, processing and networking required to run a customer application. They are assembled and tested in a factory environment and include all necessary power, cooling, security, and associated management tools (DCIM).

Steven Carlini, senior global director of marketing and business development, Schneider Electric
Steven Carlini, senior global director of marketing and business development, Schneider Electric

“In very simple terms, they’re a smaller version of the traditional prefabricated centre,” Steven Carlini, senior global director of marketing and business development, Schneider Electric, explained.

Their role becomes clearer when the architecture options for edge computing are considered, including the gateway or embedded device (e.g. router, switch, etc.), the regional data centre, and the micro data centre. According to Carlini, embedded devices have limited storage and processing power, while regional data centres come with considerable capital expense and construction requirements. Micro data centres, on the other hand, offer plenty of processing power and storage capacity and are fast to deploy in existing environments. This makes them an ideal option for distributed computing models – a model that is becoming increasingly relevant in efforts to keep pace with the data processing demands of today and the future.

Maurice F. Zetena II, VP, data centre technology, network solutions, Leviton
Maurice F. Zetena IlI, VP, data centre technology, network solutions, Leviton

There is definitely an emerging market for these fit-for-purpose micro data centres, said Maurice F. Zetena IIl, VP, data centre technology, network solutions, Leviton. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of adoption in a building block approach that can be replicated, and is easy and rapid to deploy. This answers the most important needs for data centre design today, which are adaptability, scalability and migrate-ability from a physical layer and connectivity perspective. Designed right, mDCs could be as small as a single rack, but contain servers, storage (SSD or HD), switching, UPS (if needed), and support for their own cooling.”

He believes given current and next generation technologies, “Pretty significant capabilities could be attained even within one or two racks, and they could be environmentally supported in an office area or a shop floor. With a standardized OS/VM [operating system/virtual machine] and a reasonable network, almost all maintenance could be handled remotely as well. It’s a simple way to scale without over-extending resources.”

Dynamic vs. disruptive

The micro data centre is not considered to be so much a disruptive technology as a dynamic one that fills an ever-widening gap in data processing circles. The key selling point lies in the fact that it’s an easy and cost-effective way for organizations to put the function of data collection and/or consolidation closer to the data itself in order to reduce latencies and gain more efficiencies. With the exponential growth in data traffic and IoT, those latencies are quickly becoming a major threat for today’s networks and data centres.

The toll data takes

The numbers bear out the fact that networks will be taxed to the limit by an overabundance of data traffic. A Cisco report, The Zettabyte Era—Trends and Analysis states that annual global IP traffic will pass the zettabyte threshold by the end of 2016 and will reach 2.0 zettabytes per year by 2019. It also reports:

  • Global IP traffic has increased fivefold over the past five years and will increase another threefold over the next five years (23% compound annual growth rate from 2014 to 2019).
  • Global Internet traffic in 2019 will be equivalent to 66 times the volume of the entire global Internet in 2005.
  • The number of devices connected to IP networks will be more than three times the global population by 2019.
  • Broadband speeds will more than double by 2019. By 2019, global fixed broadband speeds will reach 42.5 Mbps, up from 20.3 Mbps in 2014.
  • Every second, nearly a million minutes of video content will cross the network by 2019.
  • Globally, IP video traffic will be 80 percent of all IP traffic (both business and consumer) by 2019, up from 67 percent in 2014.

“People don’t understand the ripple effect associated with all of this,” Zetena said. “Every time we as individuals make a single transaction, we cause huge amounts of east/west traffic. What you don’t see is the pebble in the pond effect. For example, a simple mobile payment can trigger seven to 15 transactions behind the scenes, from updating inventory and order processing to financial transfer of information back and forth. With each micro data centre, you can in fact reduce the amount of centralized physical storage, and the transistor size and processing power required for each of those back-end transactions.”

Who’s on board

Large retail and financial services are among the industries that are putting more thought into mDC strategies. However, the primary users are currently the military, oil and gas, mining and industrial IoT sectors where intelligent data gathering through automated equipment, drones, telemetry systems, vision systems and robotics play a critical role. Not only can an mDC function where a traditional data centre can’t (e.g. a mine shaft), localized collection points allow operations to manipulate data much faster.

In a world increasingly populated by unmanned vehicles and equipment, no one can afford to have systems bogged down by excessive traffic, Carlini said. “That’s what people are worried about. And that’s why we’re seeing a lot of [localized] projects. It’s all a latency play. Locating a data centre at the edge of a network and reducing the number of hops data has to go through could reduce latency by orders of magnitude.”

Micro data centres are not just an option for remote locations. They can also play an important role within mega data centre environments, Zetena said. “They could be very valuable as an adjunct in large scale public cloud environments as data collection points. As entities like Facebook, Google and Microsoft move towards more real-time apps – some of it driven by IoT – they believe data collection and processing points have to be much more localized. Disaggregation of data is a logical step and makes tremendous sense.”

Anytime, anywhere processing

Simon Rohrich is cofounder and co-inventor for Elliptical Mobile Solutions. He noted that reducing micro data centre design to a more granular, rack level means the mDC can serve as a standalone operation than can operate outside or inside a facility. “Because each module has its own cooling, environmental protection and fire suppression, they can be linked like Lego blocks to offer more flexible deployment. A self-cooled micro data centre system can operate on a roof, in a garage or a warehouse. AOL for example located one outside its data centre on a concrete pad.”

Given the escalating demand placed on data centre resources, Rohrich envisions a time in the not too distant future when traditional buildings simply won’t be able to keep up. “With micro data centres, however, you can build a data centre without architects or engineers. You just need a master electrician and a fork lift and you can build something that’s one-tenth the operating expense of a traditional data centre. You simply drop the container into the location and connect it via fiber.”

In fact, micro data centres can conceivably be configured to create a full blown data centre at much less cost he added. “Upfront costs for a normal brick and mortar data centre could be $20 million. Using a micro data centre design, you can only put in as many modules as your first anchor customer needs. Then build out when you need. You can fill in the blank spaces as you go rather than building an infrastructure first and hoping customers will come to you.”

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