Five Interconnected Trends to Watch
We’ve seen the overlap of data center and telecom interests for years and a gradual convergence of those environments, but occasionally there are moments that serve as sudden reminders of just how tightly these two industries are connected. It shouldn’t be surprising at this point, but the ubiquity of the shared landscape is a little jarring.
The dominant market drivers in both spaces can be grouped broadly as “energy and environment” and “speed and simplicity,” and the trends impacting both industries in 2023 reflect that reality. Managing energy use and carbon emissions are core objectives for data center operators and telcos, just as much a central business consideration as deploying capacity quickly and building faster networks. The drivers, the goals—and the strategies for achieving those goals—are consistent whether the network is IT or telecom.
Let’s look at the trends and how they apply to telecom.
Trend 1: Increasing Regulation
Data centers are responsible for 2-3% of global energy consumption,1 a significant share that telecom matches—with consumption predicted to triple by 2030.2 Together, telcos and IT generate up to 4% of global CO2 emissions,3 but that number is projected to reach as high as 14% by 20404 without aggressive action.
We anticipate that type of action in the data center market in 2023. Some countries have already taken steps to reign in and actively manage data center energy use; and the skyrocketing energy demands, rising costs of energy, and capacity challenges in many regions all are powerful incentives for increased scrutiny and government intervention.
The telecom industry has been proactive in terms of self-monitoring and regulating its carbon footprint. In 2020, the industry introduced the first science-based pathway to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the telecom sector.5 It includes emissions reductions trajectories for mobile, fixed and data center operators to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or 34.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Along those same lines, the International Telecom Union (ITU) published guidance on how to set net-zero targets with the goal of helping operators reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
This sort of self-governance may delay significant regulatory actions, but only if operators adhere to the guidance and make real progress toward reducing their carbon footprints. Otherwise, third-party intervention is likely, just as we’re seeing in the data center space.
Trend 2: Diesel Generators See Real Competition
The desire to reduce the reliance on diesel generators for extended backup power is part of that larger sustainability and decarbonization effort, and it’s certainly not limited to data centers. In fact, as ISE readers well know, the telecom industry has a long history with various forms of backup power. Hybrid power systems relying on a mix of sources, including batteries, solar panels, fuel cells—and, yes, diesel generators—have been popular at remote sites in much of the world (although less so for North America) for 30 years.
The share of diesel in that mix is shrinking for many reasons, most notably the fact that those generators produce carbon emissions. Every time they kick on, they churn out climate-changing gases, and the upkeep and refueling of those generators only adds to the carbon footprint. Operators are scouring their networks for ways to reduce their CO2 emissions. Diesel generators are an easy target.
One example is a pilot project by Google at its Belgium data center to use large lithium-ion batteries to replace generators: https://www.datacenterfrontier.com/featured/article/11428503/google-looks-to-batteries-as-replacement-for-diesel-generators.
Trend 3: Shopping off the Rack
Modular design is becoming the dominant mode of data center construction, to the point that a recent Omdia survey found 99% of enterprise data center operators say prefabricated, modular data center designs will be a part of their future data center strategy.6 Vertiv predicts increasing adoption of modular design among hyperscalers as well, citing their need to add capacity quickly, reduce construction timelines and costs, and simplify installation and service.
Do those drivers sound familiar to our telecom readers? Of course, they do. And telcos have been leaning on prefabricated, modular components and design elements for years. In many cases—especially in core sites—the modular systems are the same as those deployed in today’s data centers and IT edge facilities.
Prefabricated, modular construction offers several benefits, including:
- Off-site assembly, eliminating sequencing delays on-site and compressing construction timelines.
- Reliable, repeatable factory assembly and testing that reduces service issues.
- Simplifying installation and service due to design standardization and repeatability.
“Data centers are responsible for 2-3% of global energy consumption, a significant share that telecom matches—with consumption predicted to triple by 2030. Together, telcos and IT generate up to 4% of global CO2 emissions, but that number is projected to reach as high as 14% by 2040 without aggressive action.”
Trend 4: Higher Densities Alter Thermal Strategies
The trend here is consistent across IT and telecom, even if the details are a little different. Data centers are seeing rack densities well beyond traditional norms. According to the Uptime Institute’s 2022 Global Data Center survey, 20% of large data center operators say they have racks of more than 40kW.7 Even with 5G and mobile edge computing (MEC), telecom sites rarely see those numbers.
Still, the introduction of more electronics in all corners of the telecom network and in cabinets that weren’t necessarily built for it is changing the thermal profile of those sites. More sophisticated approaches to thermal management are required in today’s 5G networks. In some cases, operators must double the cooling capacity to meet these new demands. This, of course, requires more energy, which increases costs and carbon emissions. It’s not an easy adjustment.
Trend 5: 5G Meets the Metaverse at the Edge
The theory here is simple: 5G networks require computing close to the consumer, and telecom operators are racing to upgrade and expand their networks to meet those demands. The metaverse, likewise, requires ultra-dense, low-latency computing networks to support the virtual reality features that make the application what it is. Eventually—maybe as early as 2023—the shared interest in high-density, low-latency computing networks will lead to a marriage of convenience between telecom operators and organizations rolling out some version of a metaverse.
Setting aside the metaverse for a moment, we’re already seeing intriguing partnerships between telecom operators and cloud providers. British Telecom and Elisa in Finland both recently announced arrangements with Google, primarily to leverage the cloud giant’s analytics capabilities and, potentially, its artificial intelligence capabilities.8 Is it a stretch to see greater cooperation between telcos and cloud providers at the edge of the network, whether it’s to support enterprise metaverses or other compute-heavy applications?
Whenever and wherever it happens, there will be complications. Chief among them is network and site security, already a significant concern for operators as they roll out their 5G networks. These denser networks mean more endpoints and higher vulnerability. Both physical site security and digital security should be top of mind for today’s telcos.
The shifting data center landscape in many ways mirrors activity in the telecom space. Changes in one area affect the other, and today’s forward-thinking telecom operators must stay ahead of those changes. More than ever before, IT and telco decision-makers are connected, with tremendous opportunity available to them through tighter collaboration.