Micro Data Centers: Getting Close to the IIoT and Enterprise Processing Edge

Kevin Brown, CTO at Schneider Electric, says it’s impossible to have a conversation about Micro Data Centers without talking about rising trends such as Edge Computing and the Internet of Things, especially the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Data intensive applications have been around a long time, he said, industrial process control is a particularly good example.

According one definition, the IIoT incorporates machine learning and big data technology, harnessing the sensor data, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and automation technologies that have existed in industrial settings for years. Kevin Brown spoke to me about this and other applications impacting the market for micro data centers at a recent expo – click here to see the video.

Process data has tended to utilise proprietary networks, but what’s really changing today is the deployment of internet technologies throughout manufacturing and processing industries. Much of the resulting data is now being uploaded to the Cloud – whether it’s a private Cloud, a public Cloud or a hybrid architecture. But to make the best use of the data and analytics to increase productivity and manage costs, these types of applications need to be run at the edge, very close to the load.

Kevin Brown says that this is very much being driven by bandwidth and latency considerations. Suddenly the process and control manager is having a new conversation – do I put my application in the Cloud or do I keep it locally? Depending on the amount of data that I’m dealing with, might it be cheaper to deploy edge infrastructure than pay for the bandwidth back and forth?

“So we see some applications like industrial process control where processing is going to have to happen very close to the load; but then others like content delivery networks want to put data close to the point of consumption simply because of the bandwidth considerations,” says Brown.

“Content distribution is driving itself more data towards the edge but we’re very much in this conversation with customers about what is the cost trade-off between locating physical infrastructure close to the point of consumption versus the bandwidth cost when the data is stored more centrally. Latency and bandwidth are going to be the core drivers in these conversations as we go forward.”

Various surveys over the last few years have highlighted the skills shortages in both the data center and IT sectors. I wondered whether the micro data center trend represents a type of simplified infrastructure “appliance” to match integrated hardware which has emerged in the IT markets. I asked Kevin whether micro data center solutions start to answer some of that requirement?

“I think it’s a very interesting question,” said Kevin, “because the industry appears to be moving towards a place where you’re going to have generic blocks of computing that are getting deployed and a lot of Cloud technologies… it’s really trying to get it to where you just have this generic hardware/ compute platform that you can deploy any application on.

“If we do this right, it really should simplify what people need to do. You can design it once; you can deploy these anywhere – they’re very standardized. Hopefully, they will have standardized IT inside of them and therefore that really does simplify testing and maintenance. Instead of having to integrate solutions from many different IT software and physical infrastructure vendors, , you can start viewing these just as a consolidated appliance that can be quickly and efficiently deployed.

“Micro data centers are a great example of the big investment that’s being made in prefab data centers. We’re really trying to get things to be standardized blocks of compute that are getting deployed. When done correctly, this will minimize and simplify the training requirements because everything has been pre-manufactured and fully tested.”

Consolidation has been a major trend in the data center industry for a number of years now, but now, all of a sudden, analysts and manufacturers are forecasting a proliferation of data centers as we anticipate edge computing applications to start to answer the requirements of the IOT. I asked Kevin what he thought the answer to an increasingly complex infrastructure landscape might be?

“We always like to talk in the industry that things are going in one direction or the other,” he said. “It’s either consolidating or becoming more distributed! What we think is happening is we’re going to have both. So there’s going to be a mix of things that you want locally and things that you want centrally.

“Now what’s interesting about this wave of edge computing data centers out there is it does introduce the question about how do I manage these? The tools that are available now are much more sophisticated than those that existed 10 years ago, or even five years ago. So the progress that’s been made on the ability to control and understand what’s happening at the local area and the connection between the physical infrastructure and IT is much better and we think it’s a key enabler to allow people to deploy data centers effectively.

As with anything located remotely, the ability to be able to configure, troubleshoot and update without physically visiting the site is going to save cost and time. For those providing content to choosy customers, it’s also going to be critical to reputation. When it comes to the infrastructure that supports these services, Schneider Electric support will not necessarily end when the equipment is handed over: “As a solutions provider we have the ongoing capability to help customers with additional support to help remotely monitor the data center and manage the compute devices as well,” said Brown.

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