There is an evolution happening within the modern data center. Huge data center operators like Google and Amazon are quietly redefining the future of the data center. This includes the integration of robotics to create a lights-out, fully automated data center environment.
Let’s draw some parallels. There’s a lot of similarity between the modern warehouse center and a state-of-the-art data center. There is an organized structure, a lot of automation, and the entire floor plan is built to be as efficient as possible. Large organizations like Amazon are already using highly advanced control technologies – which include robotics – to automate and control their warehouses.
So, doesn’t it make sense to logically carry over this technology to the data center?
Robotics in the Data Center
As the reliance on the data center continues to grow, full software and hardware robotics automation is no longer a question of if, but a matter of when, technologists predict. Robotics organizations, like Chicago-based DevLinks LTD are already having conversations and creating initial designs for data center robotics automation.
Scott Jackson, Senior Robotics Programmer at DevLinks, says it’s becoming quite feasible to have a robot fetch a drive, blade or even a chassis and deliver it to a central bay for replacement.
“Simple RFID tags, laser and barcode identifiers can create true data center automation,” Jackson explains. “For example, you can tag drives with RFIDs and assign them to be wiped, destroyed and reused as needed.” Conveyor systems are able to run in parallel to robotics within the data center environment.
There are already working examples of robotics in the data center. Tape archives seen at Google and high-performance computing data centers use robotic arms to locate and retrieve backup storage tapes. (For an example, see this video of a system in action at the NCAR data center).
What Will Be Different?
What might a robot-driven “lights-out” data center look like? There would be rail-based robotics capable of scaling the entire data center. Here’s an interesting wrinkle: the modern data center would no longer be limited by horizontal expansion space. When using robotics, data centers can literally scale upwards. Utilizing space in the best possible manner is always a challenge for data center providers, so having the ability to scale both horizontally and vertically becomes a huge advantage.
“These robotics can scale the entire rack, which can now be much taller because of these intelligent robots can reach higher,” said Jackson. “Once a part is removed, a conveyer at the bottom can move the part to the appropriate floor space. Furthermore, detailed vision technology has progressed a long way as well. Solutions like Cognex are able to allow machines to take pictures of a device, barcode and many other variables to help identify the part’s destination or origin.”
Large organizations that invest heavily in their data center infrastructure are actively exploring robotics solutions to help them better control their data centers. IT shops such as Amazon and Google are looking at ways to create a fully automated, lights out data center. AOL has taken a first in that direction with an unmanned data center facility.
The Cost Equation
As with any technology, costs for custom data center robotics will start high and come down as time progresses and platforms become smarter. Smaller robotics are already becoming less expensive. Manufacturers like FANUC develop large machines; but they also create smaller, more agile robotics. Models like the LR and the Mate M-1iA are paving the way for super-agile, fast, robotics capable of granular part identification and distribution.
Both data center, automation, and robotics technologies have come a very long way over the past decade. From the warehousing perspective, robotics already know where everything is located, how to put things in order and are able to directly interact with the human-created automation scenarios. Because of robotics, something very interesting has happened: Instead of the human going to the warehouse, the warehouse comes to the human.
Soon it will be possible to do this at the data center level.
This would enable entirely new approaches to operations. Your data center will be able to run at a different temperature level, you won’t need any lights, and you can directly integrate your new robotics platform into a modern-day automation and orchestration platform. From a central command center, the human operator can maintain visibility into their data center environment, the robotics infrastructure and the workloads that are being managed. This can all be done without the need of a single person on the data center floor.
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