Before you ask, after reading the title of the blog, yes, robots are coming for us.
But not in the post-apocalyptic kind of way. Given that we are a part of the generations that have grown up on the likes of Terminator, The Matrix and Westworld, it makes it quite easy for us to embrace the possibility of robots ‘awakening’ and ousting humanity.
The good thing is that the rise of robots in data centres has nothing to do with that.
In fact, these data centre automated robots look nothing like your favourite sci-fi ones. Mostly it’s just mechanical arms and assembly lines (although, one did pin a data centre worker of a prominent internet company to the wall when it malfunctioned!).
And for data centre workers and businesses, any robotics deployed data centre automation is a welcome respite. According to the 5th Annual State of the Data Centre Industry Report, 41% of data centre leaders surveyed believe that robotics and automated systems will be deployed in data centres in the next 12-36 months. The reasons for their optimism are many.
Making a case for robot deployment
Data explosion & the new normal
The pandemic-led rampant digital adoption and technologies like IoT, 5G, big data, cloud computing, AI and robotics have opened the floodgates for data consumption, processing and storage. In fact, global IP data traffic is expected to reach 278 billion GB per month by the end of 2021 – almost double the number just three years ago!
Here, data centres are the critical enablers of a digital world, and so are the operators and workers. But the pandemic has posed new challenges for them such as long working hours to meet the skyrocketing demand of cloud, gaming, video streaming, etc. As the world went into lockdowns, data centre personnel kept the world’s businesses and any sense of normalcy on track. In fact, they have been recognised as key workers for their contribution.
This is where data centre automation and automated robots can take over a load of menial tasks such as monitoring, scheduling, maintenance and application delivery, leaving human employees to deliver value on more strategic and mission-critical tasks. Social distancing is another challenge that automated robots can address in an increasingly manpower-hungry data centre industry.
The growing size of data centres
Today, labyrinthine hyperscale data centres are booming. On top of that, their sheer size and complexity are increasing owing to increased demand, meaning that it is becoming a tough maze to navigate for human personnel. Imagine the sheer number of personnel that would be required to keep the world’s largest data centre in China, which stands at 10.7 million sq. ft big!
For data centre robots, navigating such behemoth spaces with many football fields in the area and multi-storied should be child’s play. From checking and replacing faulty drives to taking floor temperatures, such robots will also allow the deployment of vertically stacked data containers, thus leading to bigger, better facilities. The likes of Korean robot SCOUT (2011) and IBM’s iRobot (2013) were the first in line to carry out such task before the world moved on to more complex and advanced robots.
The need for speed (and efficiency, sustainability and security)
Of course, it is incumbent upon any technology to upgrade and become more seamless and efficient with time. Data centres are no different. As the volume of servers to be managed keep growing, data centres are looking to implement automation and robots to not only manage physical tasks with greater speed and accuracy but also predict, detect and address potential issues before they result in operation failures or massive downtime.
Artificial Intelligence is what makes this possible while also enabling greater sustainability and energy efficiency through assessing power usage and temperature settings in real-time to maintain a stable environment. In fact, cooling robots are increasingly being deployed for this very reason across many data centres.
Security is another parameter where data centre robots provide an edge over human counterparts. The likes of SENTRY – a data centre robot created by Switch – provide a fully autonomous security system that can navigate; remotely track, record and assess the environment; and even scan personnel for temperature or cars for number plates!
In line with this data centre automation revolution, many automated systems have become popular, such as:
- A German internet exchange’s patch robots that independently migrate customer optical connections
- Alibaba’s robots that can locate and replace faulty hard drives,
- Robots that can tie hard drives with RFIDs for easier retrieval
- Facebook’s pick-and-place robots that can navigate to every corner of the data centre
- Google robots that can shred hard drives
- Robotic optical fibre switch for automated fibre deployments
Skilled workers – where are they?
The deployment of automated robots will also help with the looming workforce shortage in data centres. By 2025, we will need at least 300,000 more skilled workers globally to keep the world’s cloud and colocation data centres running – but the bar to entry in the sector has been set very high. This is another challenge that can be solved with the help of robot deployment in a distributed environment where automation can take care of minor tasks, bringing down the number of personnel required to handle the floor.
The future is now
If there is one thing that automated robots lack, it is adaptability – something that humans are skilled at. Therefore, the immediate future at data centres is set to be a collaborative one, where man and machine work in tandem to carry out the processes seamlessly.
In most data centres, robots and other automated processes will always require human supervision – till we reach a mismatch between the sheer volume of servers and storage to be managed and the availability of adequate personnel.
This is where ‘lights out’ data centres have been proposed – first by HP in 2006 and later by AOL in 2011. These centres are completely unmanned and automated. The latest versions of such data centres run with the help of environmental sensors, remote monitoring and advanced edge operating systems. Zero human presence at data centres also adds to efficiency gains as the centres can then be operated at higher temperatures and humidity.
Another approach to achieve 100% robotic automation is to design hyper-scale data centres and their racks, servers and data halls around robotic management – something that Amazon is doing at its warehouses. The advent of edge computing will also necessitate the creation of thousands of small, unmanned data centres at distributed locations.
There is no denying that robots are coming for us at data centres – but only to save the day and pave the way to a hyper-connected, digital tomorrow. So, allay your fears and get excited!