Megacity data centres: solving infrastructure issues

Neil Cresswell, CEO at VIRTUS Data Centres, explains the challenges facing megacities, highlighting how these issues can be resolved.

The prospect of better employment and a brighter future has always been a powerful lure in industrialising societies – drawing people from rural outposts to urban centres – therefore, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the cities in which we live are growing exponentially bigger.

There are already 33 urban areas that meet the definition of a ‘megacity’ (home to ten million people or more) – from London, Cairo and Beijing to Sao Paulo – and as migration to cities continues to increase, so will the number of cities joining the megacity club. Many researchers and academics laud megacities as the modern centre of people, ideas, business innovation and economic growth. However, there is no doubt that rapid growth will put significant strain on infrastructure such as power distribution, sewage, water systems, transport, education, policing and welfare.

Even with solid economic growth, megacities are not necessarily becoming better places to live. In 1971 for example, slum dwellers accounted for one in six Mumbai citizens; now they constitute a majority, as housing infrastructure struggles to cope with population growth. Traffic congestion is also worsening. Nearly half of Mumbai commuters spend at least one or two hours getting to work, far more than workers in smaller rivals such as Chennai, or Hyderabad.

Megacities present both opportunities and fundamental challenges, therefore, how do we find the right balance between growth and opportunity and a sustainable quality of life? What does a city of the future have to look like in order to make life worth living in it?

There is not a one size fits all answer to these questions, however, it can be argued that the real heart of the megacity is the infrastructure, and more specifically, the IT that powers it. According to Hitachi, the ability to make megacities productive and successful lies in making cities as smart as possible and that technology-enabled living will be crucial to the success and improved quality of life in the age of megacities.

The power of megacity data centres

It is a fundamental truth that megacities thrive, or otherwise, on shared public systems and services, and Governments, technology companies and businesses all want to leverage this urban interconnection and the data it produces.

The backbone of the smart city is the smart network that underpins it. Electricity, supply and disposal systems will all be electronically linked and the applications of this connected technology are extensive; smart city devices will monitor the flow of traffic to optimise driving conditions; smart streetlights have the ability to adapt their brightness to local environmental conditions while gathering valuable data on things like traffic flow and air pollution; and smart technology can help improve the quality of water by testing for contamination at key points in the supply chain. The list goes on.

However, whilst the benefits of the smart megacity are extensive, they will only be realised when digital infrastructures can physically link dispersed machines and sensors so they can exchange information in real time. If they are to tap into the potential value of big data, interconnections between people and applications, data, content, clouds and the network needs to be seamless.

Meeting the capacity challenge

We know that smart applications require lots of connectivity, data storage and computing power, so it is no exaggeration to say that megacity data centres will be at the heart of the smart megacity.

The extensive nature of big data needs something beyond a company or government department’s in-house storage capabilities, and this presents significant opportunities for data centre providers to help governments and businesses alike to deal with their big capacity challenge. The capacity to store data generated by Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and the ability to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information – very quickly – is vitally important and will give huge competitive advantage to organisations and municipalities that do it well.

The implications of not getting it right are potentially disastrous. Failures in the network could result in energy systems being shut down, companies unable to do business and huge transportation disruptions – as well as hospitals and schools suffering huge outages. Because of this, smart cities are turning to decentralised energy-generation and storage systems which will be able to minimise the impact of power outages or natural disasters.

Smart megacities will also have to mix the old and the new – dealing with legacy infrastructure as well as creating new facilities. For some this might mean that traditional core connectivity hubs will have to work alongside smaller data centres optimised for Edge computing. Providers may also need a workaround to cope with disparate local energy regulations and prices and work out where data centre facilities can be optimally located in megacities. As more and more applications are required to service immediate engagement – such as streaming, ecommerce and financial services – data centres must be placed correctly for this type of need too.

Multi-tenant co-location facilities have been cornerstones of the internet economy since the 1990s and will continue to be important as we enter into the age of the smart, tech powered megacity environment, providing the best in interconnectivity, flexibility and scalability. High Performance Computing will also likely power smart megacity applications, as it presents a compelling way to address the challenges presented by IoT and big data, and managers of megacity data centres will continue to adopt high density innovation strategies in order to maximise productivity and efficiency, increase available power density and reduce the physical footprint computing power of the data centres; vital in powering heavy big data applications.

When looking at what makes a megacity work, first and foremost, it should be remembered that cities are for people. Many experts talk extensively about the business or economic benefits of smart cities, yet it is clear that the technologies which smart cities are built on will be fundamentally good for the city, good for city authorities and most importantly, good for the citizens themselves.

In order to improve the quality of life for tens of millions of people, the onus is on the technology infrastructure that underpins the innovation. Get the data centre strategy right and governments, companies and people have an intelligent and scalable asset that enables choice and growth. Get it wrong and it becomes a fundamental constraint for innovation and change.

Neil Cresswell


VIRTUS Data Centres

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