Every day, per IBM, connected humanity and equipment generate some 2.5 quintillion bytes of data—like downloading half a billion high-definition films. It’s set to grow: by 2020, per Google’s Hal Varian, the total data generated will reach 23 zettabytes—or 53 trillion gigabytes—50 times the data generated in 2010. Not surprisingly, data centers are proliferating. New strategies are speeding delivery and reducing costs.
People have associated the term “data center” with monolithic, functional structures. This reflected the need for site and facility security and for affordable sites near stable electric power grids. Costs drove design, leading to a preference for precast façades and isolated sites. They were designed for the machines. “Today’s data centers are likely to have high-profile, brand/media–conscious giants that care about their image,” Shawn Reichart says. As companies compete to attract and retain a new generation of highly trained, much sought-after technology talent, data centers increasingly cater to the human experience. “They’re providing amenities, access to daylight, and ergonomic workstations,” he says. Location is also a bigger factor in their appeal. Closer in is preferable, ideally as part of the cityscape.
With new smart device and creative apps drawing interest from artists, designers, and makers, the “engine room” that supports the creatives is also gaining cultural cachet. Social media companies make a point of showing off data centers. They’re even showing up as a fashion accessory: for its spring 2017 haute-couture show, Chanel presented its lines on a data center–themed stage. Models in tweed jackets and robotic helmets sauntered between rows of servers and tangles of colorful wires—an indication that people’s virtual lives say as much about their identity now as their clothes do.
STRATEGIES FOR SCALE
Along with moving closer to the talent, data centers are becoming urban to support new ways to get data to its ultimate recipients faster and at less cost. Cloud computing, while mainstream, benefits from strategies like edge computing that anticipate end-user demand by shifting data storage and processing from central facilities to smaller facilities closer to where the demand resides.
Take a popular streaming service that deals in first-release films or hot new TV series. Both the content and immediate access to it are part of the appeal. When a buzzed-about new show appears, the service will shift that data to edge facilities that manage local traffic wherever likely audiences are clustered. Viewers aren’t going to the cloud—that is, to central servers—but to faster ones nearby. And in a crunch, the center can tap its edges to boost its overall capacity. It’s also a strategy for scaling up.
Despite having their own data centers on a global basis, even the giants are looking for ways to scale up quickly to meet the connected world’s appetite for data. Colocation is another strategy they’re using: sharing data centers that other companies own and operate. Besides sparing these companies the need to develop and staff their own facilities, it cuts their risk. “The demand for data is surging, but fluctuates,” Reichart says. He points to the debut of the US Affordable Care Act. “Millions of people went online to open accounts, and medical records were converted to digital formats. That spike in demand for data storage was predictable, but future growth in demand is harder to gauge.” Brexit may be similar, adds William Ringer. “It may bring data storage back to the UK from the EU, with regulation changes.” The risk of getting it wrong makes third-party colocation a compelling option for many companies.
MANAGING THE CYBER THREATS
Cybersecurity is another big factor behind data center growth. Per IBM, more than 4 billion records were leaked in 2016 due to data breaches. One breach alone involved the loss of 1.5 billion records. While IBM reports that attacks on the clients it monitors are decreasing in frequency, this may mean that targeted attacks are so effective that random attacks to test vulnerability are unnecessary. Still, there were also “brute-force attacks,” as IBM calls them. In China, hackers took control of more than 20 million accounts of a popular auction site. Hackers also held data for ransom, targeting the healthcare industry. A hospital in California paid 40 Bitcoins (about $17,000) to a hacker in 2016 to get its data back, IBM reports. The growth of connected devices—including cars, trucks, and infrastructure—introduces new arenas for hacking to extract payment or cause disruption, potentially on a massive scale. Data centers are only part of the picture of how these threats will be met. Connectivity itself is an important factor. The threats are top of mind. Data centers that can be actively monitored and constantly upgraded are a bulwark. To underscore the issue’s importance, IBM has an interactive digital wall showing cyber-attack attempts occurring in real time. The data comes from IBM’s global monitoring of its cybersecurity clients.
As digital connectivity grows apace, shaping life around it, the world is so dependent on data that it has become a 21st-century utility. The goals in 2017 are to make the data secure, the facilities future-proof, and the experience of working there a great one for the tech talent. “The first two goals really depend on the third,” Reichart says. “That’s why the industry is so focused on raising data centers to the level of other high-performance work settings.”
Aileen Kwun is a design writer and editor. Princeton Architectural Press just published her book, Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design.