The Robot-Driven Data Center of Tomorrow


Tape libraries, like this one at Google, provide an example of the use of robotics to manage data centers. Robotic arms (visible at the end of the aisle) can load and unload tapes. (Photo: Connie Zhou for Google)

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.

Pages: 1 2

Get Daily Email News from DCK!
Subscribe now and get our special report, "The World's Most Unique Data Centers."

Enter your email to receive messages about offerings by Penton, its brands, affiliates and/or third-party partners, consistent with Penton's Privacy Policy.

About the Author

Bill Kleyman is a veteran, enthusiastic technologist with experience in data center design, management and deployment. His architecture work includes virtualization and cloud deployments as well as business network design and implementation. Currently, Bill works as the Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at MTM Technologies, a Stamford, CT based consulting firm.

Add Your Comments

  • (will not be published)


  1. moreover, there might be swap beetwen air atmosphere to the something more efficient in terms of cooling and fire blocking

  2. The Great Gak

    The tape library in the picture accompanying the article isn't an early example of anything. Storage Tek introduced that technology 26 years ago.

  3. Mark Hahn

    This article is great: it proves you don't have to know anything at all to sell your expertise! the basic premise of this article is that physical access is frequently needed to a DC. for crappy, ad-hoc random ones, that might be the case, but why not just get serious about design and planning? big DCs (webscale or HPC or virtual hosting) simply do not require physical fiddling. maybe if you manage to select exceptionally flakey hardware (but hey, fix the problem first!) density isn't a serious issue (*power* density is, but that has nothing to do with physical access.) DC operating temperatures have nothing to do with human comfort preferences, and everything to do with Tcase chip specs and the thermal resistance of your heatsinks.

  4. Bill Kleyman Post author

    @Adam - Great insight. It'll be interesting how the data center will shift in the near term. @The Great Gak - The image of the tape library is just a basic example of robotics and robotics automation working within the data center. It'll get a lot more complex than that down the line. @Mark Hahn - "it proves you don’t have to know anything at all to sell your expertise!" I certainly beg to differ. Do you really believe that data center automation isn't going to advance? New design specs, more reliance around the data center and a lot more need for scale. Density isn't a serious issue? The ability to scale up and out is a HUGE reason why Google and Amazon are very actively looking at these designs. Team - this isn't happening tomorrow. But it will happen. This is the natural progression of technology. Ease of management and more control over data center variables get solved with things like robotics automation. Don't become complacent. Learn about these technologies and remain open minded. There are far too many big players already looking at this for anyone to turn a blind eye to robotics entering the modern data center.

  5. Mike E

    One major obstacle to moving to a robotic DC is the ever-changing form factors of the server, storage, and networking hardware as technology and innovations progress. For conversation purposes, let's say a company spends $XM on a new robotic facility, after about 3 years, all the initial warranties will have expired and the hardware will be almost obsolete. As new form factors come onto the market they probably won't be compatible with the "old" robotic form factor. So, by the time the initial ROI is achieved, it would be time to reinvest, rebuild, and retool the robotics infrastructure. The key to success here is in keeping the design small, flexible, and scalable.

  6. Bill Kleyman Post author

    @Mike - You're right -- but isn't that just the evolution of technology? As the old gets older, we innovate to become better and more efficient. It'll be the same with data center technologies, massive deployments and how entire chassis are designed. The robotics solution isn't for everyone. Rather, those who do the right math and understand where the benefits come in -- are the ones which will see the greatest return. Calculating ROI at this point is really difficult. By the time robotics reaches the data center -- the solutions may be quite feasible.

  7. Kalmath

    Very interesting discussion. Is there a place i can refer more on DC automation and use cases?