Micro data centres give network computing the edge


Some trends in IT viewed over the long term may seem to be cyclical. One in particular has seen IT deployment move from centralised processing to personal computing and back again. Matthew Baynes, datacentre strategy and business development director, UKI, Schneider Electric explains


In the early days of mainframe processing, IT was centralised and remote from users who would access information via ‘dumb’ terminals. The PC explosion from the 1980s onwards delivered more and more power and applications to individual users’ desktops and, eventually, laptops.

We are currently in the era of cloud computing in which for a variety of reasons—technological, managerial and financial—applications are hosted in large data centres and delivered to remote users of a variety of access devices ranging from smart phones to tablets to high-performance notebook PCS.

Nevertheless, there is now a growing demand for Micro Data Centres, relatively small computing units that support smaller numbers of customers or users, usually in fairly close proximity to the installation. Micro Data Centres typically are not housed in the massive purpose-built premises that are common today. Instead they comprise prefabricated modules that can be located in a suitable area, either in a temporary building structure, an existing computer room or in some cases at the smaller end, in a spare office space.

There are a number of factors driving the adoption of micro data centres located at the so-called edge of a network, far removed from the huge data centres that enable cloud computing. First, the cloud does not suit all situations. There will always be a requirement for local processing, sometimes in relatively inaccessible or hostile places, where server facilities will be required in more rugged housings than are typical in industry. These are specialist cases that will be looked at in a subsequent article.

In many cases there may be a requirement to expand the capacity of an existing data centre. This can require the acquisition of new premises and incur planning and construction costs, not to mention delays, resulting in a very expensive capital investment program. A prefabricated modular facility that can be dropped or wheeled into an existing space can be a cost-effective alternative.

A most important driver is the much anticipated ‘Internet of Things’ which will see all manner of physical products equipped with the ability to transmit and receive data for the purposes of maintenance, support and traceability. Research firm Gartner predicts that there will be 25 billion such products, including mobile devices, smart appliances, sensors, cars and industrial machines, by 2020.

The Cisco Visual Networking Index forecasts that “Annual global IP traffic will surpass the Zettabyte (that’s a billion Terabyte or a trillion Gigabyte) threshold in 2016 and the 2Zbyte threshold in 2019.”

Such massive increases in the amount of data transmitted will simply not allow ever greater centralisation of data storage. In order to cope with  such quantities, and to deal with the inevitable latency issues, there will be a need for local data centres at the edge to house data that does not need to travel all the way across what used to be called the Information Superhighway. Smaller local information ring roads will be a much better fit for many purposes.

An added benefit of micro data centres at the edge is that they can be put together more cheaply and much more quickly than the large cloud-supporting data centres. In many cases, micro data centres allow organisations to exploit sunk costs, or investments already made in facility power and cooling. Speed of deployment too reduces costs and allows companies the flexibility to respond rapidly to emerging opportunities.

In some ways a micro data centre may sound very like a traditional server room in an SME or a departmental data centre in a larger company. Typically, these would have grown in size, and complexity, as an organisation’s computing needs increased. Also, very typically, the haphazard way in which they grew, and the complexity of managing all of the applications and users that were associated with them provided some of the impetus for cloud computing in the first place. Centralised data storage, backup and license management coupled with secure delivery to remote users promised to remove many of the headaches associated with IT.

A key difference between a traditional departmental server room and a modern micro data centre is that the former grows from the bottom up with all the attendant upgrading headaches, whereas the latter is designed from the top down to be as efficient as possible in terms of infrastructure while remaining flexible in terms of the IT services that it delivers.

How small does a data centre have to be to be considered “Micro”? Some can be delivered in a module the size of a filing cabinet and rolled into a suitable office space whose only requirement is access to mains power and a data-network connection. Some can be delivered on a flatbed lorry as prefabricated containers to be positioned in a car park or unused green space. The number of racks in each module can vary and in density terms they can range from 1 to 100kW of IT load.

The essential definition of a micro data centre according to Schneider Electric is a self-contained, secure computing environment that includes all the storage, processing and networking required to run the customer’s applications. Importantly, they are assembled and tested in a factory environment and ship in a single enclosure that includes all necessary power, cooling, security and associated management tools, especially DCIM (data centre infrastructure management) software.

The key elements of support infrastructure in any data centre are power backup (UPS), cooling, monitoring and environmental management. In the case of larger micro data centres that come delivered in prefabricated containers, many of these issues, especially concerning power, are addressed by equipment built into the modules from the outset.

Cooling is an important issue that has to be considered specifically to each installation. Prefabricated modules will often have racks arranged in Hot or Cold Aisle configurations to maximise cooling efficiency and come with their own dedicated air-conditioning or chiller systems.

For smaller examples, the “Server Room in a Box” type modules in which the racks are contained in a small cabinet that can be wheeled into a space not specifically designed to host IT equipment, care must be taken to ensure that the advantages offered by an integrated plug and play module are not wasted by overlooking the cooling requirements.

Whether they are deployed as low-cost and quick-to-assemble upgrades to existing IT facilities in SME organisations, or whether they are deployed at the Edge of a network to complement cloud computing by helping to reduce unnecessary internet traffic and reduce network latency, micro data centres will play an essential role in the computing landscape of the future, empowering the increasingly connected Internet of Things, allowing regional or departmental server rooms to expand reliably and cost effectively and enabling the cloud to develop a robust reliable Edge.