While most industries are suffering as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, the data center industry is witnessing unprecedented need for growth. Across the globe, businesses and schools have pivoted to remote working and learning, and internet usage has skyrocketed. As this demand for data explodes, it’s become clear how vital data centers are to the economy. The question is no longer, do we need these facilities, but how fast can be bring more of them online?
The tech industry has taken the lead in moving data to cloud computing facilities to meet insatiable demand. But this moment represents another opportunity for other, often overlooked market segments to consider new data center solutions.
Two segments that could perhaps benefit the most are healthcare and education. These two industries that have traditionally focused primarily on investing their resources in their primary missions around patient care and students respectively, rather than investing in IT infrastructure. That needs to change.Healthcare and education face a new world
For the healthcare industry, the global nature of this pandemic has highlighted the vital need for accurate, real-time, interconnected health data, both for short-term and long-term analysis. Additionally, hospitals are ramping up capacity of telemedicine to mitigate the burden upon hospitals during epidemics and to allow them to better meet patient demand. Academic medical centers have also shifted focus to aid researchers with direct access to high-performance computing and even the ability to deploy grant-specific computing clusters.
Education has also changed significantly. Across the globe, students and teachers are learning and collaborating virtually on an unprecedented scale. Zoom, Google Classroom, or Blackboard lessons are now the norm, and education experts say that the shift to online learning is likely to continue, even when physical distancing wanes.
Here are some practical considerations healthcare and education institutions can use to prepare for a post-COVID-19 world:1. Scale up your facilities.
Now is the time to examine whether you’ll need to scale your data center operations. Consider ramping up capacity to ensure IT infrastructure can meet demand for future services such as telehealth and virtual learning. For some, this may mean a larger investment in colocation facilities or a migration to cloud services. For larger institutions, this likely means looking into refreshing existing facilities or planning for new facilities.2. Cost goes hand-in-hand with planning.
With limited budgets, this is not an easy undertaking for many institutions since critical facilities like data centers and research computing facilities can be some of the most expensive to construct and typically are not patient or student facing.
On the healthcare side, one approach to lower the cost to entry would be purpose-built healthcare colocation data centers, or developer lease-back arrangements. This type of industry focused colocation is starting to appear as an option in the market.
For education, an appealing model is the public private partnership (PPP or P3). This is well known for certain types of education projects and there is no reason data centers can’t take a similar approach to bring new computing facilities to campus.
The new DataBank data center for Georgia Tech is a partnership between Georgia Tech and DataBank, which enabled the developer to fund, design, and construct a larger project to provide a larger research computing environment. This long-term ground lease/lease back concept allowed the university to build a world-class facility where they can partner with private industry, with almost no capital expense needed beyond the HPC computers.3. A mixed-use approach.
Whether for a hospital or a university, data centers can be part of campus. By blending different programs together and creating a mixed-use building, it’s possible to maintain a secure computing environment while showcasing the asset to doctors, students, researchers, and donors.
We’re working on a healthcare project that combines a data center with a conference center and medical simulation labs in a single building. These program combinations not only create an opportunity to integrate a data center or computing facility into campus, but potentially can have a cost savings from combining programs into a single building or project.
These combinations can also yield energy savings: if a data center were combined with student housing and a rec center, the waste heat could be used for heating water for shower facilities and swimming pools.
Beyond cost savings, these mixed-use computing facilities can be economic and innovation engines. University of Illinois has estimated greater than $1 billion direct return to Illinois’ economy after its NCSA Petascale Computing Facility went online. In fact, the NCSA facility, and its Blue Waters supercomputer, is part of a new public-private research consortium focused on artificial intelligence and advanced computing to slow the spread of COVID-19, and mitigate risks from future pandemics. For academic medicine and higher education, access to research computing enables further research grants.
The coronavirus is an immediate and unprecedented challenge, but this will not be the last time we deal with viral outbreaks. This health crisis has highlighted the need to invest in critical facilities infrastructure to prepare to meet the current and future demands of a rapidly evolving reality — a reality in which data is a currency and an essential utility for the economy.
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