Gigabit Special Report: Smart city data centres
Gigabit Magazine explores the changing face of smart cities and how edge computing is key to meeting the data centre demands of an increasingly urbanised future.
Human history has, you could argue, been one long, sustained gravitation towards the city in the search for power, work, safety, culture, opportunity, fame, fortune, companionship and - increasingly - a better cup of coffee. The city’s presence in the collective human consciousness is monolithic and colossal. From the stark skyscrapers and sleek monorails of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the dancing neon and searchlights that criss-cross the sky in Katsuhiro Otomo’s vision of Neo Tokyo, the city has forever been a cumulative expression of humanity’s greatest achievements and deepest subconscious identity.
In 1950, just over 751mn people lived in cities. Today, that figure has grown to exceed 4.2bn. More than half of the world’s population live in cities, a figure that the United Nations predicts will reach as high as 68% by 2050, adding a further 2.5bn people to urban environments around the globe. Our cities are getting bigger, more crowded and more numerous. Right now, more than 120 new cities are under construction in over 40 countries. Urban environments that grew organically to accommodate the movements of the horse and cart now contend with the movements of millions of cars every day.
Congestion is far from the only challenge that the swelling ranks of urban humans face: pollution, longer food supply chains, crime, climate change, income inequality, siloed and unwieldy government bureaucracy, corruption, lack of access to healthcare, housing and education - all these factors and more contribute to make meeting the challenges of the modern city a daunting task. This doesn’t mean it’s not a task worth rising to.
The midday sun beats down over Dubai, sparkling against the glass tower of the Burj Khalifa and the waters of the Persian Gulf. A dozen rotors disturb the boiling air as an autonomous, electric passenger drone lowers itself through the sky and onto a docking station, ready to carry a young family in the direction of downtown.
In the 3,500 person city of Kalasatama - which is being built on the outskirts of Helsinki, Finland - an elderly man drops a bag of refuse into a vacuum tube that carries it away to an underground disposal centre. He doesn’t have to brave the sharp winter air and he hasn’t been stuck behind a garbage truck since he moved here. Adding up the time reclaimed by anti-congestion measures and other town planning, Kalasatama’s developers say that living there gives every resident, on average, an hour of their day back that the rest of the world spends in traffic or in line for goods and services.
Thought to trace its roots back more than 10,000 years, Matera in southern Italy is - after Jericho and Aleppo - thought to be the third-oldest city in the world. Today, at the end of a long and often troubled past, the ancient stones of the cliffside city are soon to be covered by one of the first 5G networks in Europe. Old meets new, as tourists to Matera can experience the city using extensive augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offerings.
All around the world, cities are using technology to make their streets safer and less congested, their air more breathable, and to provide more complete and convenient experiences to the people that live in them. However, networks of autonomous vehicles, augmented reality experiences, and AI-powered digital displays - along with traffic monitoring systems, facial recognition technology, machine learning enabled garbage collection and virtually every other smart city solution - requires something: data.
“The ultimate goal for smart cities should be to utilise the insights that will allow for the improvement and development of the physical world around us,” says Wael Elrifai, VP of Big Data, IOT and AI at Hitachi Vantara. “Unlocking today’s data centre capabilities will be a game changer for this success.” For smart cities to function successfully, cutting edge data infrastructure is a necessity. “It’s no secret that in order for smart cities to become fully integrated they need a data-centric solution that will remove the strain from the existing data infrastructure. Data centres will play a pivotal role here in building the cities of the future as IoT and smart applications require improved connectivity, data storage and computing power,” Elrifai continues.
The modern data centre landscape has seen dual trends take hold of it in the last few years. First, the maxim that “bigger is better” has seen global adoption of hyperscale facilities reach new heights. A large driver behind the construction of these large, centralised facilities is market regulation. Because a data centre is one of the biggest consumers of energy in a modern city, their construction is highly controlled in markets like Europe, where cities like Amsterdam - the region’s largest data centre hub - are starting to put the kibosh on any new builds at all.
However, this creates an issue. Smart cities - particularly those investing heavily in IoT - are finding themselves generating actionable insights from their data more quickly and efficiently. “In the event of a serious car accident, edge computing can process the vehicle data and alert local services,” adds Ciaran Dynes, SVP of Talend. “Another example of how smart cities are harnessing edge computing is with traffic management. With the help of connected car startups like wejo, relevant organisations across the city can get better real-time predictions and accuracy on routings. This can help reduce congestion by re-routing away from high-traffic routes. This data can also be used to help urban planners design roads and cities based on movement.”
Ankur Singla, founder and CEO of Volterra notes that “these projects generate huge amounts of data; so much that it can’t all be sent back to the cloud in order to be processed or stored securely. Even though 5G will bring real-world bandwidth improvements of around four to six times, the economics still don’t work. It just doesn’t make financial sense to send this amount of data to the cloud for analytics”.
In such a climate, though it’s easier for enterprises to obtain permission for a single hyperscale facility than for a dozen edge facilities, the economics of bandwidth are demanding a new solution. Which brings us to trend number two: the rise of the Edge.
The exponential explosion of data ignited by a smart city, supporting everything from self-driving trash cans to citywide facial recognition technology, creates a problem that modern networks and hyperscale data centres alike are ill equipped to cope with. For Daniel Valle, EMEA Chief Technologist at World Wide Technology (WWT), the problem is simple. “As demand for connected services increases, so too does the congestion across the network,” he explains. “Therefore, there is a direct correlation between the volume of deployed devices and the need for edge computing solutions. Hosting edge computing nodes closer to the network edge where the data is generated will be a huge focus for carriers and digital urban planners alike. Network traffic which does not need to flow through a core before being delivered back to the device leads to faster response times and more efficient citizen services.”
Going forward, citizen-centric smart cities like Barcelona - which have seen sweeping initiatives improve the quality of every service from water management to transportation - will be, the experts believe, driven more than anything by the migration of data centre infrastructure to the edge. “At the heart of all smart cities are the digital technologies that offer important potential for transformation. In recent years, edge computing has one of these digital technologies creating a buzz within the smart cities space due to the many IoT-based use cases it enables,” concludes Valle.
“Unlike the centralised vision before it, edge computing presents a new decentralised way of seizing the opportunities and tackling the hazards brought about by urban transition. Edge computing allows large amounts of complex data to be processed and analysed instantaneously at the devices themselves. This has been recognised as essential in removing barriers and fulfilling visions like autonomous driving. Moving forward cities all over the world will be looking for ways to include edge computing into their architecture.”
SAS: Improving the British Army’s decision making with data
SAS’ long-standing relationship with the British Army is built on mutual respect and grounded by a reciprocal understanding of each others’ capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Roderick Crawford, VP and Country GM for SAS UKI, states that the company’s thorough grasp of the defence sector makes it an ideal partner for the Army as it undergoes its own digital transformation.
“Major General Jon Cole told us that he wanted to enable better, faster decision-making in order to improve operational efficiency,” he explains. Therefore, SAS’ task was to help the British Army realise the “significant potential” of data through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate tasks and conduct complex analysis.
In 2020, the Army invested in the SAS ‘Viya platform’ as an overture to embarking on its new digital roadmap. The goal was to deliver a new way of working that enabled agility, flexibility, faster deployment, and reduced risk and cost: “SAS put a commercial framework in place to free the Army of limits in terms of their access to our tech capabilities.”
Doing so was important not just in terms of facilitating faster innovation but also, in Crawford’s words, to “connect the unconnected.” This means structuring data in a simultaneously secure and accessible manner for all skill levels, from analysts to data engineers and military commanders. The result is that analytics and decision-making that drives innovation and increases collaboration.
Crawford also highlights the importance of the SAS platform’s open nature, “General Cole was very clear that the Army wanted a way to work with other data and analytics tools such as Python. We allow them to do that, but with improved governance and faster delivery capabilities.”
SAS realises that collaboration is at the heart of a strong partnership and has been closely developing a long-term roadmap with the Army. “Although we're separate organisations, we come together to work effectively as one,” says Crawford. “Companies usually find it very easy to partner with SAS because we're a very open, honest, and people-based business by nature.”
With digital technology itself changing with great regularity, it’s safe to imagine that SAS’ own relationship with the Army will become even closer and more diverse. As SAS assists it in enhancing its operational readiness and providing its commanders with a secure view of key data points, Crawford is certain that the company will have a continually valuable role to play.
“As warfare moves into what we might call ‘the grey-zone’, the need to understand, decide, and act on complex information streams and diverse sources has never been more important. AI, computer vision and natural language processing are technologies that we hope to exploit over the next three to five years in conjunction with the Army.”
Fundamentally, data analytics is a tool for gaining valuable insights and expediting the delivery of outcomes. The goal of the two parties’ partnership, concludes Crawford, will be to reach the point where both access to data and decision-making can be performed qualitatively and in real-time.
“SAS is absolutely delighted to have this relationship with the British Army, and across the MOD. It’s a great privilege to be part of the armed forces covenant.”