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Inside Digital Realty’s datacentre playbook

Digital Realty’s chief technology officer talks up key trends that are shaping its business and the datacentre industry, including edge computing and the impending roll-out of 5G networks

As a major supplier of datacentre services with roots in real estate, Digital Realty knows more than a thing or two about the forces that are shaping the datacentre industry.

From co-location services that give enterprises their own datacentre footprint to interconnection offerings that let enterprises hook up directly to public cloud services, the company has been evolving its offerings to keeping up with technology changes and business demand.

In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly, Digital Realty chief technology officer (CTO) Chris Sharp shares how 5G will impact the datacentre industry, and how the company is reigning in datacentre operating costs while catering to new workloads like edge computing.

What is your view of the Asian datacentre market and the key trends that are shaping how datacentre service providers operate in this part of the world?

Sharp: I view Asia as one of the critical markets for us to continue to invest in. We have invested roughly $500m to date in Singapore, as well as in future growth to meet customer requirements.

We’ve only seen the first wave of cloud coming to market, and that’s one of the trends feeding the datacentre business. I think the dynamics around how cloud is evolving, and some of the newer infrastructure coming to market to support newer cloud services, is shaping the market.

We constantly watch, not only what customers are doing with their infrastructure today, but what they anticipate as the next set of services they are trying to deliver. Putting a finer point on that, we see the second wave of cloud being more around the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in cloud applications, which requires a different type of infrastructure.

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A lot of the cloud infrastructure we see today is more of compute, storage and network connectivity. But the change in workload requirements, particularly around AI, requires more power-dense designs. So as you approach 30kW per rack, you have to start to do liquid cooling – you can’t just blow air through the rack.

With the unique stance that Digital Realty has globally with our portfolio, there’s not a datacentre that we don’t manage and operate. We’ve garnered a tremendous amount of knowledge and we are in a prime position to retrofit a lot of our existing designs to support liquid cooling.

The digital transformation that’s been happening in this market is also fuelling demand for larger datacentre footprints, along with the need for interconnectivity at scale – and that’s a differentiator for us.

We constantly watch, not only what customers are doing with their infrastructure today, but what they anticipate as the next set of services they are trying to deliver.
Chris Sharp, Digital Realty

It’s often misunderstood that co-location can only support a certain footprint, but we’ve been able to support multi-megawatt requirements from enterprises that are starting to realise that they have to support a 500kW or larger requirement.

At the same time, these enterprises need to interconnect to other services, some of which are on public clouds. And roughly 80% want to operate in a hybrid environment where they build their own private cloud and want access to public clouds. We call it the hybrid multi-cloud.

So, one of the reasons I’m visiting is to bring our Service Exchange product to this market. It allows you to dynamically access all the clouds privately and tie them all together, removing the complexity from the customer.

Land procurement

Following up on what you’ve just mentioned, besides power-dense designs, are you also looking at high-rise datacentres in markets like Singapore and Tokyo where available land is hard to come by?

Sharp: We’ve been very lucky to have a whole team dedicated to land procurement, which makes us very unique. With Digital Realty having started out in real estate, we have an in-depth team that scours any type of land and any type of retrofit ground, where buy a building and retrofit a datacentre – which is also how we entered this market. It puts us in a unique position to procure that efficiently. And definitely because of the scarcity of land, we want to go as high as we can.

In the last couple of years, there has been some interest in the use of Arm processors in datacentres. Does that have an impact on the way you think about cooling because, obviously, those chips consume less power and have less cooling requirements?

Sharp: Absolutely. The ability we have to vary the way we distribute power in the datacentre is absolutely paramount. One of the things we often look at is again the heritage of our broader portfolio of assets. We constantly learn from every market and the worst thing we can do is to build out a data hall for a customer that needs X amount of power only to find that they don’t need it later and get stranded.

To your question around Arm and some of these other processors, we absolutely see them as critical for customers to solve specific and specialised workloads. That's where you see every major cloud provider building their own processors and really honing in on that.

That does change how we support customers – for example, the variability in how we do the design and the fit-out can definitely be tuned to support their needs. We do see some low-density setups where there might be a bunch of flash storage arrays, with two-kilowatt per rack on four racks, or an AI GPU (graphics processing unit) farm with 35 to 45kW. Being able to meet those requirements in an efficient fashion and having that knowledge is absolutely critical to being successful going forward.

Edge datacentres

Those applications might not be sitting in the datacentre – they might be at the edge, and that’s where edge datacentres come in, right?

Sharp: The edge means many things to many people. And that’s why I always love meeting with the media and try to get you to educate the market and standardise. I often get asked about the edge, and I’m like, “Well, what do you mean by the edge?” and then you kind of start to define it a little bit more.

We definitely see the edge as being critical. Many of our top customers are major public cloud providers. We look at their workloads associated with the edge, and we’re constantly working with them to get educated on new applications that may sit at the base of a cell tower with specific throughput and latency requirements

One of the things we’ve learned in that dialogue is that many workloads with an edge requirement need to be efficiently linked back to existing infrastructure. A lot of data still has to be aggregated in a centralised location, so we are working with cloud providers to bring back that broader data set from an edge workload.

The other perspective is where those workloads should reside. And this is where the devil is in the details. If you’re looking at existing spectrum with 3G/4G, the radio, or where you can insert data and perform application-specific tasks, sits in the tower. So, we work with major cell tower owners that are looking to provide some type of small footprint, co-location type offering at that base of their towers.

If you take it a step further with 5G – and I think it’s very important to watch how it’s rolled out – the radio is shared within a metro in what’s known as a cloud radio access network (C-RAN). Where that C-RAN is placed is critically important.

We’re constantly talking with partners and vendors about where they are going to logically place some type of infrastructure next to that C-RAN, because that’s where they are going be able to efficiently interject or capture traffic from mobile devices and internet of things (IoT) sensors, and link the data back to cloud services.

The cloud service providers with their dominant market position and buying power, and how mobile operators hub up their C-RAN, will shape how the edge is going to play out at scale.

Relationship with telcos

Many telcos, at least in this part of the world, are also datacentre providers. What is your relationship with them, since they probably want tighter integration between what they are doing with 5G and their own datacentres?

Sharp: We are a firm believer in being open. So we welcome any network operator, and many of them have points of presence (POPs) in our facilities. We always play back to our existing customer base, including major public cloud providers that are going also help us tie together that supply chain. Even if a big mobile operator has a datacentre, owns the tower and has that complete supply chain, it will want to have proximity to the gravity of our existing base so that it can get data back to its network efficiently.

But no two markets are alike and no two metros are alike, and I hate to say it, no two mobile operators are alike. So it changes based upon the company, but because of the existing work and gravity of data that’s already been created in our facilities, it drastically outweighs a lot of what I would say traditional telco datacentres would have within them.

I used to work at MCI Verizon, which had a huge datacentre portfolio at Qwest a long time ago. Datacentres are a very capital-intensive business, and if it’s not your core business, you’re going waste a lot of money. Also, neutrality was what really won out, right? Being able to sit in a datacentre where you can only use one network operator’s network is not enough. You’d want another secondary network, just in case the primary network goes down.

We work with major cell tower owners that are looking to provide some type of small footprint, co-location type offering at that base of their towers.
Chris Sharp, Digital Realty

Being in a true network-neutral place with access to four or five networks will let you pick and choose the right network based on your workload requirements. For an application that traverses North America and Europe, you’d want access to cable-landing stations in an efficient fashion. And that’s where you see a lot of our datacentres being more viable and valuable to a broader class of enterprise customers and, in particular, the public cloud providers because they run their own networks too.

Yeah, like Google.

Sharp: They run the biggest network in the world, right? And you said it first, I didn’t say it. We get the benefit of these huge networks built by the major cloud providers by being neutral, because a lot of our customers want multi-cloud. No one cloud provides the full suite of what an enterprise wants. Being able to tie different cloud services together privately and effectively is absolutely paramount.

The impact of 5G

But how will 5G impact the way you think about datacentre infrastructures? Does it require a complete redesign in the way things have been built?

Sharp: Excellent question. Why I brought up 3G/4G is that everybody is trying to extract as much revenue out of the capital already allocated. I will tell you, the one thing that we constantly look at is not a redesign of the datacentre, but a redesign of the interconnection portfolio.

When I speak about our heritage and how we have evolved in our asset classes and balance sheet, it is also about some of the acquisitions that we were able to pull together with Telx and Telecity. These were huge interconnection companies in North America and Europe. We’re always evolving our interconnection products to support enterprises that want to leverage the new 5G edge.

There's also been a rise in datacentre operating costs over the last couple of years, particularly in hot and humid Southeast Asia, where cooling costs are higher. Can you talk about some of the innovations that Digital Realty is looking at to reduce these costs?

Sharp: We have a wonderful R&D programme and we operate in every climate around the globe. And so, we have a lot of operational knowledge on how efficient certain cooling and power distribution systems are. We are always working with the top vendors on evolving the way that we run our cooling infrastructures. In the last year, we’ve seen major advancements, where we use a coolant-based system called Liebert DSE in many of our design and builds in humid and non-humid, as well as hot and cold conditions.

We're also working with vendors on different ways to cool with air using adiabatic evaporative systems which you’ll see a lot of in more humid climates. One of the things that has been very beneficial is our supplier-managed infrastructure programme, which allows us to procure and buy at levels that nobody else can replicate. The per-unit price that we can buy cooling and power distribution systems is drastically cheaper, which translates to a more efficient and economical service that we can deliver to the customer.

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