Integrating Edge Data Centres

By Simon Harris, Head of Critical Infrastructure, BCS.

5G mobile communication has set a new standard in data transmission with higher speeds, lower latency, and greater capacity for more devices than its predecessors. With the ability to transmit such large amounts of data at such high speeds does 5G render edge data centres unnecessary, or is there still a need to bring computing capacity closer to the point of generation?

A symbiotic relationship

In reality, there is a symbiotic relationship between 5G and edge computing for many applications. Without edge computing, 5G would not be able to meet the expectations placed on the technology. Advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep analytics, autonomous driving, and augmented reality / virtual reality will only be possible through high-speed connections combined with data processing near the end user.

Consider the safety-critical implications of autonomous driving for example. Autonomous vehicles must not only ‘perceive’ their environment but also communicate with other vehicles and traffic control centers to navigate traffic situations or hazards. The shorter the transmission paths, the more efficient the data exchange. Additionally, edge data centres provide higher communication reliability, as an alternative nearby data centre can take over data processing if there is a connectivity issue.

The need for edge data centres is further reinforced by a phenomenon known as "induced demand," a term also familiar in road construction. Tobias Kuhnimhof, a professor at the Chair of Urban Planning and Transport at RWTH Aachen University, sums it up: "Build roads, and you will generate traffic." Most people are familiar with this concept from everyday life. If a road, for example, is expanded from two to four lanes, there is an initial period of improved traffic flow, but in the long term, traffic on the road will increase, and will inevitably flow as poorly as before the expansion. Inevitably this is how it will be with 5G. The rapidly growing number of users and applications relying on 5G will eventually make the initially abundant bandwidth a scarce resource.

Repurposing and integrating Edge Data Centres

Edge data centres are urgently required for the applications of the future. However, not everyone is thrilled about the idea of having increasing numbers of data centres in city centers, so their location becomes an important decision in urban planning. Empty buildings, such as unused retail sites and low quality commercial or industrial space are an increasingly common sight in cities. With innovative thinking these buildings can be converted into data centers leaving the established cityscape unchanged. Because edge data centres do not have the dimensions of traditional data centres they can also fit into much smaller buildings e.g. the floor of a former office building. Repurposing or integrating into an existing building has obvious challenges but there are environmental advantages, reducing resource utilisation and energy consumption compared to building a new facility.

Adaptation and Imagination

Data centres in the city do not need to mimic the massive facilities found in remote locations. Instead, they can be designed to integrate into the existing urban landscape or even enhance it by using local building materials and stylistic adaptation to the surrounding architecture. From an urban planning perspective, constructing a new edge data centre is no different from building any other structure.

Sustainability

Understandably data centres do not have the best reputation because of their energy requirements. However, few people are willing to forgo the modern conveniences of everyday life that necessitate data centres.

There are several ways to improve their environmental footprint, starting with using renewable energy, employing energy-efficient servers and storage systems, free cooling or liquid cooling solutions and utilising waste heat. In addition to potentially gaining greater societal acceptance, green facades play a crucial role in compensating for habitat loss providing a home for birds, insects, and other species.

Communication and Public Involvement

The acceptance of edge data centres in our city centres can and should be promoted through effective communication involving the effected communities. It’s crucial to communicate the benefits and necessity of edge data centres clearly through all channels and engage in a dialogue with the local community. Residents will be much less resistant to the new computing power in their neighborhood if the project is not imposed on them without explanation.

The Way Ahead

Data centres are the powerhouses of modern society and play a crucial role in our collective future. Therefore, it is crucial for the industry to address potential societal concerns to create a foundation for the next step in development: the rapid establishment of a network of edge data centers. At BCS we are working closely with our clients to help successfully integrate a range of solutions into the community and broader society, including building a range of waste heat schemes into many of our projects and have built up leading expertise in this area.

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