The Unimaginable Future: Data Center Leaders Grapple With Growth

June 27, 2017
Some of the industry’s most optimistic industry thought leaders expressed amazement at the recent pace of data center growth at the recent DCD Webscale conference, and urged colleagues to prepare for further acceleration in demand.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – If you’ve been to data center conferences, you’re probably used to seeing tech executives project big growth, just around the corner, visualized in PowerPoint slides with lines moving up and to the right.

There was a different reality at last week’s DCD Webscale conference: All that growth isn’t coming anymore. It’s here.

In a series of presentations and discussions, some of the most optimistic industry thought leaders expressed amazement at the recent pace of data center growth, and urged colleagues to prepare for an acceleration in demand with the emergence of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, virtual reality and connected cars.

“A lot of things we’ve been talking about for years are all happening, and all happening at once,” said George Slessman, the CEO of IO. “Things are growing at a pace that was unimaginable a few years ago.”

“I’ve been in this industry for 28 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Dean Nelson, Head of Compute at Uber. “The demand curves of all the disruptive services out there are generating huge amounts of data and huge amounts of compute capacity. The zettabyte era is actually on the horizon, for real.”

Over the past 18 months, the accelerating shift to the cloud has redefined the scale of data centers, with several providers building new server farms in excess of 1 million square feet. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Oracle are deploying unprecedented amounts of data center space.

Keeping Pace with the Cloud

Slessman has always been a believer in building big and innovating. In 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis, IO bought a massive industrial building in Phoenix. At the time, it was one of the largest data center conversion projects on the planet. IO is now approaching its capacity in Phoenix, and beginning construction on a second huge building next door.

“Who would have thought 10 years ago that a 600,000 square foot water bottling plant would be filled with servers and become the largest consumer of energy in the state of Arizona?” said Slessman.

George Slessman, the CEO of IO, speaks at the DCD Webscale conference in San Francisco last week. (Photo: Rich Miller)

Nelson, who has run data center operations at eBay and now Uber, enjoys pushing limits in rack density and liquid cooling, and was among the first to integrate Bloom Energy fuel cells into mission-critical infrastructure.

The current surge of cloud-powered capacity demand is a happy challenge, but a challenge nonetheless. Slessman and Nelson are not alone in grappling with growth as the cloud transition accelerates.

At a recent Infrastructure Masons session, Google’s Joe Kava and Microsoft’s Christian Belady  discussed their efforts to keep pace with the expansion of hyperscale infrastructure. It’s a task that requires creativity, and the ability to routinely expand your growth horizon.

“Whatever you think today is going to be wrong,” said Kava, the Vice President of Data Centers at Google. “The amount of compute power is beyond what we could have imagined a few years ago.”

‘The Biggest Thing Humans Will Ever Build’

The growth of cloud services requires an enormous amount of electricity. The relationship between the data center industry and the utility sector was the focus of the new DCD Energy Smart conference, which examined areas where the two industries can collaborate and learn from one another.

Some interesting context was provided by Patrick Flynn, the Senior Director of Sustainability at Salesforce, a passionate advocate for energy efficiency and green energy in the data center. Flynn said it is difficult for most people to fully grasp the connected nature of the world’s data centers. From a construction and engineering perspective, he said, the Internet is simply enormous.

“We are building the biggest thing humans will ever build.” said Flynn. “This is the dawn of our magnum opus. We have the opportunity to see the big picture, and build it responsibly.”[clickToTweet tweet=”Salesforce’s Patrick Flynn: We are building the biggest thing humans will ever build. This is our magnum opus.” quote=”Salesforce’s Patrick Flynn: We are building the biggest thing humans will ever build. This is our magnum opus.”]

Flynn argued that the data center industry bears a huge responsibility to create a more sustainable future.

“We know what’s going on in the world (of Internet infrastructure),” said Flynn. “Most of the people outside this room don’t see what’s happening. This is the most important industry to be a part of right now.”

Getting the Plumbing Right

That point was echoed by Jim Connaughton, CEO of Nautilus Data Technologies, which is developing a floating data center.

“Data centers are the foundation of the new economy,” said Connaughton. “We’re at this tiny point in a long arc, and if we don’t get the plumbing right, we’ll get it all wrong. The infrastructure has to keep pace and match that growth.”

It’s not just the data center crowd that is seeing more cloud growth ahead. At the Cloud Tech Summit earlier this month, a similar outlook was shared by Wall Street analyst Brian Nowak, an Executive Director at the investment bank Morgan Stanley. Nowak cited interviews with dozens of CIOs, which indicated that cloud growth was approaching 20 percent of eligible workloads, which he cited as a meaningful benchmark.

“Cloud is at a point of inflection,” said Nowak. “If you look at other adoption cycles, typically, once you get past that 20 percent penetration point, the curve actually inflects, and penetration accelerates. We expect workloads to accelerate into the cloud faster than before. There’s an argument to be made that clouds are creating more functionality and more workloads.”

Why 20 percent? Nowak says that level of adoption creates a comfort level for IT executives, typically accompanied by existing use cases and a maturing security profile. Morgan Stanley estimates that the top 10 cloud providers had about $50 billion in total revenue in 2016, but will scale to $153 billion in revenue by 2020.

How much data center infrastructure will be required to triple cloud revenue in just three years? Answering that question may keep data center executives busy for some time to come, and stretch the imaginations of even the most visionary thinkers.

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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