Data Center Trends To Watch In 2021

Uptime Institute has identified factors expected to impact data center facilities management this year and in the future.

By Christopher Brown, P.E.
From the April 2021 Issue

Annually, Uptime Institute compiles a list of some of the big data center trends and themes for the upcoming year. For 2021, we focused on five big trends that might not have been so obvious a little more than 12 months ago. This year shows the data center sector entering a phase of reassessment, of infrastructure and service accountability in terms of resiliency, along with material outcomes toward environmental sustainability.

Data Center TrendsIn 2021, during a macroeconomic downturn, the critical digital infrastructure sector itself continues to expand and to attract enviable levels of new investment. The ongoing buildout of new data centers and networks is largely being driven by cloud, hosted, and “as-a-service” workloads, as more enterprises seek to outsource more of their IT and/or data center capacity. However, for many managers the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a reassessment—of working practices and, in particular, risk. The global economy’s dependence on IT is growing, and this is catching the attention of more customers, governments, and watchdogs. This year (and beyond) also holds new opportunities: Edge computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and new innovations in hardware and software technologies promise greater efficiencies and agility.

Uptime Institute’s five trends for 2021 are:

1. Accountability: The “new” imperative.

Enterprises want more cloud and greater agility, and to use more outsourcing. But first they must satisfy the need of investors, regulators, customers, and partners for more transparency, oversight, and accountability. This is because you cannot outsource responsibility—for incidents, outages, security breaches, or even, in the years ahead, carbon emissions.

In 2021, hybrid IT, with workloads running in both on- and off-premises data centers, will continue to dominate, but investments will increasingly be constrained and shaped by the need for more transparency, oversight, and accountability. More will be spent on cloud and other services, as well as in on-premises data centers.

Data Center Trends
Source: Uptime Institute Global Survey of Data Center Designers, Consultants, and Vendors 2018 (n=267), 2019 (n=359), and 2020 (n=531)

2. Smarter, darker data centers.

Following a scramble to staff data centers effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic, many wary managers are beginning to see remote monitoring and automation systems in a more positive light, including those driven by AI. An adoption cycle that has been slow and cautious will accelerate. We expect a wave of new investment in remote monitoring and automation. But it will take more than just new software and services, however, before the technology reduces staffing requirements.

In 2021, more will look closely at their available data/software capabilities and begin to address both the technical and, importantly, the organizational changes required.

3. Edge: The next frontier.

The edge is still nascent, but it is a time to make partnerships, deliver technology, and build infrastructure. Significant new demand for edge computing, fueled by technologies such as 5G, the internet of things, and AI, is likely to build slowly—but the infrastructure preparation is underway. Expect new alliances and investments across enterprise, mobile, and wireline networks—for a wide range of edge data centers, small and large. Smart and automated software-defined networks and interconnections will become as important as the physical infrastructure.

4. Sustainability: More challenging, more transparent.

The time of easy wins and greenwashing is ending. For years, operators could claim environmental advances based on small, incremental, and relatively inexpensive steps—or by adopting new technologies that would pay for themselves anyway. Regulators, watchdogs, customers, and others will increasingly expect operators of digital infrastructure to provide hard and detailed evidence of carbon reductions, water savings, and significant power savings—all while maintaining, if not improving, resiliency.

Data Center Trends
Source: Uptime Institute Global Survey of IT and Data Center Managers 2020, n=426

5. A surge of innovation.

Data center operators (and enterprise IT) are generally cautious adopters of new technologies. Only a few (beyond hyperscale operators) try to gain a competitive advantage through early use of technology. Rather, they have a strong preference toward technologies that are proven, reliable, and well-supported. This reduces risks and costs, even if it means missing opportunities to advance efficiency, agility, or functionality.

However, several new technologies are maturing at the same time, promising advances in the performance and manageability of data centers and IT. Storage-class memory, silicon photonics, ARM servers, and software-defined power are ready for greater adoption.

And innovation does occur, and sometimes it comes in waves, perhaps triggered by the opportunity for a leap forward in efficiency, the sudden maturing of a technology, or some external catalyst. The threat of having to close critical data centers to move workloads to the public cloud may be one such driver; the need to operate a facility without staff during a weather event or the current pandemic crisis may be another; the need to operate with far fewer carbon emissions may be yet another. Sometimes one new technology needs another to make it more economical.

Chris BrownBrown serves as Chief Technical Officer for Uptime Institute, an advisory organization focused on improving the performance, efficiency, and reliability of business-critical infrastructure. In his position, Brown is responsible for new product development, Uptime Institute standards, and service delivery. He also monitors and tracks technology trends and impact on data centers. Brown’s 20+-year career in critical facilities covers facility design, construction, commissioning, and operations. During his tenure at Uptime Institute, Brown has conducted Tier certifications globally as well as instructing the Uptime Institute Accredited Tier Designer course.

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