No mobile tech trend is more ‘edgy’ than 5G

Given that data centres provide the supporting infrastructure for the launch of many cutting-edge technologies, facilities providers must keep their finger on the pulse of the latest technology trends. Doing so allows them to prepare adequately, and provide the foundations that new technologies require, without risking downtime or failure. For instance, the explosion of social media has given rise to a multitude of advancements in data centre design, as evidenced by Facebook’s sub-Arctic Lulea data centre. The facility is powered by hydro electricity, and incorporates hardware that was created open source via the Open Compute project.

Sometimes however, adapting to these trends is easier said than done - especially if the forthcoming technology is in its infancy, and its likely effects are yet to be established. Take 5G for example - this emerging technology is very much on the agenda of both the public and private sectors. As part of the most recent budget announcements, £16m was reserved to create a 5G hub for trialling the forthcoming mobile data technology. A 5G standard does not yet exist, but the technology is expected to surpass 4G to provide faster data uploads and downloads when it is deployed, some time after 2020.   

The consumer demand for delivering more data at faster rates is clear, but it could raise capacity issues from a data centre standpoint. If, for example, the iPhone 8 boasts a camera that takes 4k movies, people will instantly want to upload, share and stream them – but it will be up to data centre operators to ensure there is suitable infrastructure to support them. Needless to say, this represents a significant challenge.   

5G is moving closer to consumers

In the first instance, the most significant demand that the arrival of 5G will place on infrastructure is increased connectivity, to cope with higher volumes of everyday data consumption. One way to achieve this would be to move the data centres themselves closer to the people who need access to the data they house. Building edge data centres close to main carriers and base stations will also be important, because it will allow them to push data back up to the cloud at an optimal rate. 

Of course, the practicalities of moving data storage closer to endpoints and devices would necessitate a specialised and distinct approach to data centre design. Instead of huge warehouses full of server racks that reside in remote locations (or even underwater), the kind of data centre that could cater for 5G effectively would be more likely to be the size of a telephone box, and built at the end of a residential street, or under the stairs in your own homes.

It is important to point out, however, that an increased demand for edge data centres will not necessarily render current facilities obsolete. After all, the best solution is very much dependent on the use case, so providers are likely to adopt a tailored approach to data, storing some resources closer to the edge than others, depending on the speed of access that is necessary. For instance, a data backup company storing large amounts of data that requires infrequent access may be better served by the current data centre model, whereas a photo-sharing social media app would benefit from the edge model. 

The future of life on the edge

It is not just data centres that will be affected by the shift towards 5G - device designers are also likely to make adaptations in order to capitalise on its benefits. For example, despite the explosion of smartphones over the last ten years, faster streaming could lead to a proliferation in the development of ‘dumb’ devices. 

In a situation where large quantities of external data can be rapidly accessed, there would be little need for devices with large internal hard drives and the fastest processors. Data would be readily accessible for them to collect, send and receive, while compute power would reside in the cloud. Consequently, it would make less sense for phone manufacturers to devote time and resources to improving internal hard drives, when faced with diminishing returns.

We are already in the early stages of this developmental shift, as evidenced by companies producing products such as simple plastic toys for children, that are powered by IBM’s ‘Watson’ technology. As these toys are cloud connected and WiFi-enabled, they are able to update automatically as new content becomes available. And these sorts of benefits are equally applicable to phones – with 5G and edge data centres the legendary Nokia 3310 ‘dumbphone’ that was recently relaunched could easily have access to as much, if not more, processing power than current smartphone such as a Samsung S8.   

We will also see an increase in business-centric use cases for 5G and edge data centres, such as retailers using the technology to conduct even more refined and rapid customer behaviour analysis. By analysing sales data, traffic patterns etc, retailers will be able to use this data to target customers with relevant products and promotions even more effectively than they already do – and perhaps to the point where they are able to offer a compelling alternative to online stores. 

Alongside the progress of 5G, we will see further demand for edge development, driven at least in part by the rise of AI. Many of these innovations still exist within the perimeters of private businesses at the moment, but we will see more companies leveraging the algorithms they have produced on an internal basis for commercial gain. This will manifest itself in products such as interactive toys, and in-car AI assistants – all of which will be underpinned by a supporting infrastructure of edge data centres.

Whilst the ramifications of a world reliant on 5G are far from certain, one thing can be guaranteed – its foundations will be mapped out by the designers of data centres. Consequently, having the tools in place to create the optimal facilities to support future trends must be a priority for the savvy data centre owner/operator and business generally.   

Jon Leppard, Director, Future Facilities 

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