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Shaping data centres for AI, sustainability and beyond

Shaping data centres for AI, sustainability and beyond

Data CentresIndustry ExpertOperations & Systems

The necessity for more capacity is unsurprising but adapting to the unpredictable speed of sectoral growth in an efficient, sustainable way should hold most significance. Steve Lim, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Product at NTT Global Data Centers, dives into the heart of the digital revolution taking place, discussing how AI is set to reshape infrastructure demands even further and the importance of balancing the new pillars of change.

Steve Lim, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Product, NTT Global Data Centers

The past decade has been a digital whirlwind, reshaping how we live, work and interact. This unprecedented Digital Transformation has fuelled a massive surge in demand for data – and the critical infrastructure needed to store, process and distribute it: data centres. While calling this growth ‘rapid’ feels like an understatement, it’s accurate. The demand for data centre capacity is outpacing supply by leaps and bounds, and the latest wave is bringing yet another explosion in growth in data centres: the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

AI applications are multiplying at an astronomical rate. According to Structure Research, the global data centre market will grow at 14% CAGR, even without the impact of AI demand. When you take AI into consideration, experts predict that the data centre market will grow at the astounding rate of 86% 5-year CAGR, equating to an overall blended 5-yr CAGR of 23%. 

However, AI is not the only factor adding to the already heavy power demand. Global demand is high for everything – cloud services, autonomous cars and social media, to name just a few. By tackling the impact of AI’s rapid ascent and strengthening commitments to sustainability, the industry can pave the way for innovative solutions in the year ahead. Here are the three trends we expect to shape the data centre landscape in 2024.

AI is driving a revolution in cooling and heat recovery solutions 

The explosion of AI tools and solutions is itself driving an increase both in overall data centre capacity demand as well as a change in density at the rack level that requires new solutions to manage. Traditional air-cooling methods are no longer viable. 

Solutions involving AI can contribute to energy efficiency, reduced carbon emissions, predictive maintenance and the automation of routine tasks. Data centres are moving beyond traditional air-cooling methods, with new strategies to both cool within the confines of existing data centre footprints, and to incorporate these solutions from the onset in new builds.

The new wave of cooling solutions to improve energy usage has arrived with the emergence of approaches such as direct-to-chip cooling, rear door heat exchangers and liquid immersion cooling solutions. In addition, closed loop systems recycle water – rather than waste it. While these solutions are certainly gaining traction for their potential to process higher-density compute, they aren’t perfect yet; namely, upfront costs and deployment complexities stand in the way of adoption across current data centre infrastructure. 

Today, most data centre providers are implementing these technologies in some form or fashion, working to deploy them around the globe. At the same time, clients are asking for these solutions. Interest will continue to climb, and implementation will, in time, get easier with new approaches, helping these solutions become indispensable. In addition, data centres continue to collaborate and innovate with partners on sustainability and regulatory processes calling for efficient cooling and heat recovery solutions.

Energy usage has increased around the globe

Energy consumption has exponentially increased, challenging regions around the world to support current and future demand. The need for data centre capacity isn’t slowing down. AI is extremely process heavy, making for a denser data centre environment that uses more power and requires more cooling in a smaller footprint. Racks now consume up to 100kW of electricity compared to the typical consumption of 10-15kW in recent years, making net zero targets seem even further out of reach. To achieve net zero targets and build a sustainable future, the industry must embrace eco-friendly solutions. As an industry, we must continue to find ways to be as efficient as possible as energy needs grow along with this demand.

Several factors are converging to drive change. 

First, the sheer scale of the energy challenge is forcing companies to reimagine their approach. Governments are also stepping up their efforts to meet net zero targets, enacting stricter regulations and reporting requirements on energy usage. The EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive is just one recent example, pushing for transparency and efficiency, making green energy not just an environmental responsibility but a compliance necessity.

This is prompting organisations and energy providers to collaborate and explore proactive investments into renewable energy sources like wind and solar. While there are still hurdles to overcome, such as grid integration challenges and upfront investment costs for new technologies, the momentum is undeniable. 2024 is shaping up to be a year of opportunity for the adoption of green energy solutions.

Growth and expansion into new markets 

Data centres will continue to expand into more markets that put data processing closer to the end-user. Given explosive growth, data centre availability continues to be limited as providers cannot build fast enough, and core data centre markets are impacted by power and land constraints forcing data centres to find new markets in which to serve clients. We will most likely see growth in Edge markets to meet the demand of users and processing, which cannot necessarily be served by a few markets. While Edge markets are growing, the consideration of how the data gets moves and managed – connectivity and networking – is important to how and where these markets will evolve.  

Driving forces: AI and sustainability

From self-driving cars to solutions that we have not yet dreamed up, data centres are core to our present and our future. The growth of data centres will only continue to excel – the emergence of AI solutions alone is showing that there will be more need for data processing and management. The question is, how do we manage it?  

Propelling growth on a global scale and paving the way for a socially responsible digital future goes beyond a need for technical solutions; it necessitates a cultural shift within the industry. In the upcoming year for data centres, two overarching priorities – driving the swift evolution of AI and embracing environmental responsibility – stand as pillars of change. The future of the digital world, hinges on finding a balance between the two.

We need to continually look for new ways to be efficient from sourcing of energy to how we use and consume it. Running dense data centre environments is a good thing in terms of efficiency, and innovative solutions such as water solutions outlined above, are a good start. 

Ultimately, we are working to serve an insatiable data hungry world, while reducing our impact on the environment and working towards long term sustainability across the data centre industry. 

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