Data Center Infrastructure: Redefining America’s Technology Backbone

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Read more about author Aidin Aghamiri.

President Biden has just signed a landmark $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The bipartisan legislation includes record-setting federal investments to the tune of $550 billion in transportation, utilities, and broadband. An additional $110 billion will be directed toward roads, bridges, and other major projects. 

As this legislation was being debated and refined in both the House and Senate, one thing became abundantly clear: The definition of infrastructure isn’t what it used to be. The traditional conceptions of infrastructure as exclusively encompassing concrete, tangible stuff – roads, pipes, power lines, and telephone cables – no longer apply in today’s hyper-connected, high-tech world. In what’s becoming a recurring object lesson for all of humanity, we need to think more ambitiously – and with more nuance at the same time.

To be fair, in its final form, the bill does presage important advances in tech accessibility and security. It aims to bring broadband internet to those in “digital deserts.” It commits $7.5 billion to build more charging stations for electric vehicles, necessary for the increased EV adoption the administration deems critical to curbing climate change. And it also includes provisions to enhance security for aging tech infrastructure around waterways and electric grids. But it’s not enough. Reaching the goals set out in the legislation is going to require as much building with 1s and 0s as with steel and brick. 

For instance, consider the goal to make airports less congested. AI-powered prediction software could help analyze traffic patterns, delays, and runway activity to suggest more efficient processes. Or when it comes to the provision to upgrade switches and signals on railroads, there’s no doubt automation could help improve the safety and reliability of these systems.

But what’s the common component to all these cutting-edge advances? The data center. It’s what powers the technologies like AI and machine learning that will drive universal internet access, smart utility grids, and sustainable enterprise business practices. And that’s one important reason why the data center should be at the core of our evolving concept of infrastructure.

As a result, we need to ensure that planning, strategies, and federal support also cover servers, real estate, hardware infrastructure, partnerships, and the development of more technical talent nationwide.

The Changing Variables of Infrastructure

If we’re going to take infrastructure into the next century, everyone building, operating, and utilizing data centers needs to focus on making improvements that support the new infrastructure equation. 

Broader accessibility, ease of deployment, scalability, affordability – all of these factors need to be present for the kind of agile, resilient, high-performance computing needed to support digital transformation today and sustainable growth for decades to come.

  • Speed: Business leaders often think of the procurement and deployment of physical hardware as an impediment to their agility, but the real friction is conventional “we’ve always done it that way” approaches. New circular supply chain models are far less fragile than traditional ones, and capable of delivering critical technology four to 10 times faster. And turnkey solutions, where design, software integration, and assembly are included in the production process, enable rapid plug-and-play deployment that accelerates time to value and frees up IT resources.
  • Inclusivity: The infrastructure bill promises to bring broadband to swaths of the U.S. that are currently without reliable internet access – at a time when we are already challenged to keep pace with accelerating data demand from increasingly digital enterprises and innovations like 5G, cloud, and edge computing. Achieving this will require significant expansion of access to affordable best-in-class solutions that work equally well in traditional data centers and highly distributed environments. My company has long been an advocate for recertified technology for exactly these reasons. Available in abundant supply, it offers a self-replenishing resource from which to create new hardware that delivers industry-leading performance and efficiency at significantly lower cost, on the pace and scale of distribution required by millions of businesses in the U.S. and worldwide.
  • Optimization and customization: The one-size-fits-all approach to technology stacks is the last part of the equation that needs to change. This approach might make things easier for OEMs, but it forces businesses to operate within the parameters of their technology rather than the other way around. How do we solve for granular customization while keeping costs in check? Through modularity, open architecture, and pre-configured hardware/software stacks, data centers can begin offering affordable, bespoke solutions that are optimized on a per-customer or even per-workload basis.

The Role of Sustainability in Data Center Infrastructure

We can’t talk about data centers and their pivotal role in infrastructure without addressing the elephant in the room.

Up to now, the growth of data centers has largely been dependent on linear supply chains, from-scratch IT manufacturing, and a rush to discard hardware as e-waste well before its time. The byproduct of all this is a consequent rise in CO2 emissions and e-waste. Near-term estimates, for example, suggest that data centers alone could account for 3.2 percent of global carbon emissions by 2025. Medium-term predictions are even more alarming. By 2040, simply storing the world’s digital data could generate as much as 14 percent of global emissions.

The climate crisis isn’t a secret. The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) recently wrapped up, and after two weeks of closely watched meetings and negotiations, many nations are pledging to do more than ever to address the planet-changing consequences of human activity. Biden’s second signature piece of legislation, The Build Back Better Act, was the focus of much attention at COP26, because it treats infrastructure as a means to that vital end. As the $1.75 trillion dollar plan is currently written, it would cut more than a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2030 – a roughly 50% reduction compared to 2005 levels. Included in this framework are incentives to replace fossil fuel vehicles with electric ones, make the switch to solar, and transition enterprises more quickly to renewable energy. Funding and stimulating the adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles doesn’t just modernize key sectors, like utilities and transportation. It empowers and motivates individuals and corporations to take action that mitigates their environmental impacts. 

Likewise, we need to view the data center as a means to a sustainable future. In fact, the scope of its transformative power may even exceed utilities or transportation in this regard because, as we’ve already seen, the ever-increasing computational power of the data center is what enables greater efficiencies and smarter operations across entire industries.

And though global initiatives or sweeping infrastructure bills certainly help speed things up, we don’t need them to get us started down this path. We have the expertise and the raw materials in our economy right now. The world’s hyperscalers are regularly decommissioning next-gen equipment, sometimes after as little as twenty-four to thirty-six months of use. Initiatives like the Open Compute Project (OCP) are applying collaborative, cost-effective, open-source philosophies to IT architecture. More modular, flexible solutions are already empowering entrepreneurs to build innovative, ultra-green data centers at the edge.

What this signifies is that the definition of sustainability, much like infrastructure, has broadened to account for all the factors that feed into it – everything from supply-chain fragility to Scope 3 emissions. With the right mindset and the right solutions in place, the gap between financial and environmental sustainability is shrinking by the day, and a long-overdue shift in how we think about, build, deploy, and scale our infrastructure is what we need to close it permanently.

The data center will be pivotal to how that shift plays out. Let’s not wait another moment.

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