Focus across the data centre industry for the last 10 years has centred around cloud, big data and hyperscale, driven by the push to develop technologies that change every part of our lives, from the way we work to the way we socialise and go about our daily business. Things that would have seemed impossible only a few years ago are now talked about with reassuring confidence that they are just around the corner from becoming mainstream.
Soon, we will no longer be driving our own cars, needing doctors to diagnose our illnesses, surgeons to perform our operations, or even delivery drivers to drop off the groceries that you didn’t even need to take the time ordering because your “smart kitchen” has done its own re-stocking for you. Indeed, it appears that the only limit to the vast growth in the Internet of Things this generation is our own imagination …and even those boundaries may one day be demolished using technology.
Whilst the integration of IT into daily lives ranges in complexity, importance, meaningfulness and ethicality, they have one thing in common – to work, they rely on connectivity. In fact, without connectivity they are just isolated models, silos of code sitting on a server, housed in a rack, somewhere in the vast data centre estate that has grown up across the globe.
Connectivity is the most important technological jigsaw piece that allows IT development to become reality. Whereas previously the development of IT involved the dissemination of a service out to an end-user, the platform that underpins the growth in our new world will be based on trillions of data capture points, sending information back and forth to systems to provide the content to build real-time changeable outcomes that are delivered back to the user. We all are – sometimes unwittingly – collaborating partners with our IT developers on an unprecedented scale, one that continues to grow exponentially.
But connectivity means different things to different users and continues to depend on geography and economic circumstance at an international, national and local level. We are still a long way away from the ubiquitous, ever-present, globe-encompassing Internet, albeit there has never been as much focus and investment on creating it as we see today.
The wired and the wireless
In previous growth years the wired and wireless connectivity worlds could be seen to develop as separated verticals. Tech developments were either focused around social users or business environments, the former driven by the development of the smart phone, mobile internet, social forums and entertainment, the latter by the push towards the digitalisation of business and industry, embracing virtualisation and cloud infrastructures with deliverables such as increased workforce efficiency, reduced costs and new models of service delivered over ever-growing fixed bandwidths.
The last decade has seen the blending of user experiences toward primary device applications for both business and social applications and reducing barriers to use. With exploding smart phone capabilities and increasing screen sizes, the lines between business and social use are now arguably even more blurred at the user level.
5G – the essential user platform
The much-hyped arrival of 5G will continue to drive this growth because with quicker response rates and much faster speeds than 4G (conservatively 20 times and maybe even up to 50 times faster) it significantly enhances devices as receivers and transmitters – the two-way street. In one direction, it will enable the delivery of vastly increased sizes of content to the end user, enriching experiences and allowing mobile devices to seamlessly move between fixed and mobile WiFi environments with zero detectible difference.
In the other direction, it facilitates an almost unimaginable and continuous amount of data to flow back up to the processing environment, allowing the capture, collation and analysis needed for the subsequent delivery of real-time services to the end-user. Many believe that 5G provides the gateway to the proliferation of game-changing services, not only for autonomous vehicles, but also technologies such as smart glasses featuring augmented reality, mobile virtual reality, next-generation robots and remote object manipulation.
This is all made possible by the higher-frequency bands of 5G which provide a lot of capacity, but shorter wavelengths mean their range is lower and signals are more easily blocked by physical objects. So, the infrastructure to build out the 5G networks is complex, high-density and will involve extensive coverage by masts needed to transmit and receive the “millimetre waves”. Whilst this enables higher density of usage, it comes at a high investment cost in major city centres across the world, before even looking at smaller cities, towns and rural locations where the build-out parameters are totally different.
Build out of 5G has varied across the world. Carriers started rolling out fixed 5G to select US cities in 2018 and mobile 5G this year in the US and UK with a much more comprehensive roll out expected in 2020. In Asia, South Korea, one of the region’s tech leaders, has already rolled out 5G on a large scale with all three of the country’s mobile network operators now offering the ultra-fast low-latency service in multiple cities. Other high-tech countries in the region including Japan, Singapore, and China, are expected to follow suit soon. Indeed, according to the GSM Association (GSMA) by 2025, the Asia region will host 675 million 5G connections, accounting for more than half of world’s 5G connections.
Space Internet – Plugging the gap
So what happens in areas where mobile Wi-Fi infrastructure is under-developed, where 3G is still the only option and the investment parameters to improve it are simply not balanced?
True space Internet has moved from sci-fi myth to reality in only a few years, driven by some of the worlds most notable (and rich) tech celebrities and facilitated by the drive to lower the cost of rocket launch technology. Elon Musks’s Starlink, Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper and OneWeb (backed by Softbank and Airbus) all plan to use thousands of low-orbiting satellites to create a mesh around the planet that offers quicker speeds of data transfer (glass in the ground offers more resistance to signals than space) and potentially giving coverage to 100% of the globe.
Meanwhile, Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s (now side-lined) Aquila have also seen investment into the search for the delivery of space internet albeit in a lower orbit accessible to high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones, but aimed at solving the problem of coverage enabling perhaps more agility in emergency situations, rather than building low-latency routes.
It is no coincidence that the companies who are looking to drive the race for connectivity are also the ones who could benefit the most from it. All four companies core businesses have a desire to be connected to more end-users in order to deliver their products – be it internet searches, social media, cloud platforms or self-driving vehicles. And the bigger their user-base becomes, the less they will want to rely on external networks out of their control.
Their interests are apparent back on earth as well, becoming increasingly involved in the connectivity arena traditionally occupied by telecoms operators. Whilst they have previously invested in this space as part of investment consortia, they are now stepping up their engagement, leading solo projects and using their economic gravitas to drive schemes to completion in a timely manner more akin to their industry expectations.
On an international level, Google has invested heavily in subsea cables, the latest being the first finished privately-funded intercontinental subsea cable, stretching 10,000 km from Los Angeles to Chile, one of 13 the company has invested in over the past decade and soon to be followed by Dunant which will span 6,400km from Virginia Beach in the US to Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, France. At a national and local level, the company has also invested in many connectivity projects, such as public Wi-Fi hotspots across Asia and broadband infrastructure in Africa.
Facebook has also partnered with the likes of Microsoft for a 6,500 km transatlantic internet cable, with Amazon and SoftBank for a 14,000 km trans-pacific cable connecting Asia with North America, as well as launching numerous national and local initiatives aimed at trying to connect the estimated 3.8 billion people around the world who are without fast and reliable internet access.
Back to the edge
Whilst service providers are investing in the infrastructure to push connectivity out to its end-users, the industry has also pulled the date centre closer to the end-user in order to reduce distances that content needs to travel. For many applications, edge computing offers new kind of computing that’s in part content-delivery network and part cloud-compute centre and has become an important part of the digital ecosystem. Indeed, the emergence of 5G networks is enabling mobile edge computing joining to mobile towers through enhanced fibre backbone connections.
Edge computing has seen the decentralisation of the data centre model, allowing facilities to complement other cloud or colocation deployments and delivering computing capabilities to the logical edges of a network to improve performance, cost and reliability of applications. By shortening the distance between devices and the cloud resources that serve them, providers are also reducing network hops, minimizing latency and bandwidth constraints. In addition, against a background of data sovereignty, providers need the ability to keep data closer to its collection points as the push towards enhanced country regulation is aimed at safeguarding data privacy around the globe.
The model not only uses end-user proximity, but also needs a robust network architecture of connections to other platforms to ensure a seamless intelligent layer of compute levels. These data centres are therefore dependent on high levels of connectivity to ensure reliability and availability despite not always being close to the main fibre backbones that have been built-out across countries and continents through road and rail networks.
Connections for all
We have certainly come a long way since the dial-up modem and IBM’s “Simon” smartphone, introduced in 1992; a good 15 years before Apples first iPhone. Ultra-fast connectivity services have allowed the delivery of immersive entertainment and new business models but will also allow future innovations which will change our real and virtual world capabilities forever.
However, the connectivity world continues to consist of “haves” and “have-nots” with some communities enjoying previously unimaginable speeds of data availability, whilst others still not being served well by traditional methods of connectivity either through lack of bandwidth to support devices running more data-heavy experiences, or little basic coverage at all. Whilst this is being addressed, with a reported 40% of the world’s population without access to reliable internet, we are still way off a ubiquitous connectivity platform that allows powerful, low-latency computing to reach every end-user.