This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series here: Intelligent Sustainability.
As the world moves from Web 2.0 to Web3 – which is taking shape for us to deploy later this decade – power plants that will be providing new and expanded services are undergoing major upgrades in order to handle all that users will require. They will be delivering more bandwidth than we’ve ever seen before, yet they will be using less power from the wall.
How is that possible? It’s because we’re going modular: We can replace the individual parts of a data center much more quickly and efficiently than in previous years. We also don’t see the high number of data bottlenecks as were common in the past. This is because we now have more efficient network pipelines, better/leaner software, more solid-state data storage, newer, faster, cooler-running processors and a score of other improvements.
All of these components can now be slipped in or out of data centers at a moment’s notice when they aren’t doing the job. It used to take weeks or months to make data center hardware upgrades or improvements. This means we’ll always have the best and fastest components working in our data centers at any given time.
New super data centers and telecom interconnects are also replacing whole first-generation facilities at an increasing rate. There are some model data centers that stand out as prescient examples of scalable power usage, lower-tier power draw, low carbon footprint and carefully planned sustainability using natural power sources. Data center builders can learn much from these facilities as examples of how to provide plenty of IT power and still embrace the environment.
Much more power, bandwidth will be needed for Web3
We will need a lot more power and bandwidth to run Web3 and metaverse-type applications that require much higher envelopes of power, including apps involving cryptocurrency, high-end gaming, big data analytics and machine learning, 3D video and images as well as augmented reality.
AWS, Google, Alibaba, IBM, Microsoft, Dell EMC, Apple, Facebook, VMware, Oracle, AT&T, Verizon and other industry leaders are building new hyperscale, modular data centers around the world that will provide the bulk of the horsepower for the IT requirements of the future. They all are using new federal and state guidelines for power consumption, providing carbon footprint metrics, and incorporating natural power sources (mostly hydroelectric, wind and solar). They all have exemplary PUE (power usage effectiveness) ratings.
PUE is a metric – or score – used to determine the energy efficiency of a data center; it is determined by dividing the total amount of power entering a data center by the power used to run the IT equipment within it. For example, Facebook’s Prineville, Oregon’s data center facility has been running an exemplary PUE of 1.078; Google’s numerous data centers average under 1.20 across its global system. Generally, a PUE of under 1.50 is considered top of the line.
A conventional data center can take around two years to be installed from conceptualization to deployment into functional use. In contrast, implementing a modular data center is much faster, often taking 50 to 75% less time – and, as CFOs like to note, that equates to a lot of capital saved.
Facebook’s exemplary Prineville modular data center campus
Being able to install a data center in a shorter amount of time is a major competitive advantage.
This is precisely what Meta is now doing. In Prineville, Oregon, a little town at the western edge of the state’s eastern desert 80 miles south of the Columbia River, there are 11 huge buildings on a single sandy-ground campus, comprising a whopping total of 4.6 million square feet of space. Each of these buildings is the size of a couple of large Walmarts, and they appear to be terribly out of place in an area known more for hunting and cattle ranching than anything else. Those 11 data centers were all built in a span of 10 years.
Each of the data centers has a single job, such as handling the main Facebook app, the company’s corporate sites, WhatsApp, Instagram, apps for Quest AR, and other services; several are the holders of stored images. Some of the data centers contain as many as 15,000 servers, and most of those slide-out units are custom designed and built by Facebook itself. Several staff workers are deployed to do only one thing day after day: look for red lights on the stacks of servers, then pull those out and replace them with new units.
Modest Prineville was the location selected for Facebook’s first and largest hyperscale greenfield data center development, and it continues to run operations efficiently on a 24/7 basis as required by Meta.
The Prineville Data Center is supported by 100% renewable energy, including two solar projects located in Oregon. The facility, one of the most energy-efficient in the world, features an innovative cooling system created for the unique climate characteristics of central Oregon.
These facilities are designed to take advantage of the prevailing wind from the south that blows into them, is cooled through large water-covered screens, is directed down into the central server room and then blown out of the building through vents on the other side. Little or no air conditioning is required, even when the desert environment runs into the 100-degree-plus range.
These precise design features, plus the usage of alternative power sources everywhere on the campus, are what sets a modern modular data center apart from first-generation facilities built 10 to 30 years ago – which still comprise about 90% of all data centers in operation. So, there’s a long way to go in modernizing the bulk of cloud and enterprise IT, the entirety of which is housed in data centers of some kind.
How can a modular data center enable sustainability?
Modular data centers offer flexibility by letting enterprise customers who are renting colocation space for their servers start with small installations and increase them in size based on need. They can use any type of hardware they need for their use cases: standard servers, storage, and networking or hyper-converged hardware that includes multiple functions inside one device. The latter has been a huge trend for more than a decade; generally, the hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) models have provided more power-efficient performance than separate footprint server/storage/networking setups because all functions are included in a unit using a single power source.
Speed of deployment, supply chain disruptions and limited availability of skilled IT workers are three commonly cited reasons enterprises are moving to modular data center solutions. Colocation facility owners are also influenced by four specific industry trends: edge computing, expanding remote workforces, reducing CapEx and OpEx and increasing sustainability and eco-friendliness.
Gartner Research predicts that by 2025, 75% of enterprise data will be processed at the edge, with many of these new data centers handling the inflow of streaming data from cloud applications. For colocation facilities, this means that now is the time to establish a presence in up-and-coming edge markets by using modular data center components.
By 2025, 85% of infrastructure strategies will integrate on-premises, colocation, cloud, and edge delivery options into modular data centers, compared with 20% in 2020, according to Gartner.
More IT being processed, less power being used
Industry thought leaders believe that by the end of the decade, about 75% of the world’s data centers will be drawing more than half of their power supply from renewable natural sources, such as wind, solar and hydroelectric. Because that number is only at about 10% now, that means the IT industry has a long way to go.
However, data center efficiency is improving steadily, thanks largely to modular data centers that can have components changed out easily and quickly when they don’t perform well. Currently, industry experts estimate that data storage and transmission in and from data centers use 1% of global electricity. This share has hardly changed since 2010, even though the number of internet users has doubled and global internet traffic has increased 15-fold since, according to the International Energy Agency.
The goal of the data center industry is that the use of coal, natural gas and petroleum products to power these large providers of IT will be largely a thing of the past by the start of the next decade. And the industry is well on its way to that goal.