The Role of Robotics in Data Center Automation

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The hot aisle of a Google data center. Google has been acquiring robotics firms. Will that lead to a deeper level of data center automation? (Photo: Google)

Today we present part two in Data Center Knowledge’s three-part series on data center automation and the potential role of robotics.

Why is Google buying up robotics companies? No one knows for sure, but the technology titan is known for its intense focus on customization and efficiency in its data centers. Whatever else Google may have up its sleeve in robotic applications, the data center seems a natural opportunity for automation.

We’ve previously discussed how the data center of the future will likely incorporate more robotics-driven technologies. Already, we’re seeing great levels of robotics happen at the warehousing, industrial and manufacturing arenas. Data center administrators looking to embrace optimization and better efficiency are looking to robotics to help them alleviate these challenges.

Our previous articles have examined the concept of a “lights-out” data center, and drew comments and thoughts from both ends of the spectrum. Many embraced this new vision for a more efficient data center. Others very clearly wanted it to be known that robotics have no place in the data center. Why not meet in the middle?

Right now, it’s pretty clear that robotics will never (at least not for quite some time) replace the need for unique human interaction within the data center. What robotics can help with is creating automation around repetitious human labor. By freeing up professionals to do bigger and better things, robotics can actually encompass a more automated environment and increase productivity.

Already, robotics, automation, and services around these technologies are helping define the next-generation data center model. Let’s take a look at a couple of quick examples:

  • A recent article discusses how IBM is actually using robotics to plot the temperature patterns in data centers to improve their energy efficiency.  Basically, as another post in Slashdot points out, IBM is using robots based on iRobot Create, a customizable version of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, to measure temperature and humidity in data centers. The robot looks for cold zones (where cold air may be going to waste instead of being directed to the servers) and hotspots (where the air circulation may be breaking down. IBM is putting the robots to commercial use at partners — while EMC is at an early stage on a strikingly similar project.
  • Panduit, a leader in Unified Physical Infrastructure, just recently announced the launch of advisory services aimed at assessing, designing, and deploying optimized physical infrastructures for industrial organizations. These services help customers create industrial network systems designs that reduce deployment time, exceed performance requirements, and reduce maintenance and repair costs. Panduit goes on to state that as networks converge, the physical infrastructure becomes even more critical to support the demands of real-time control, data collection, and device configuration. Other data center and infrastructure shops have already begun exploring automation and robotics advisory services and roles as well.
  • Another example is Blue Prism. This organization has developed a robotic automation technology to enable business operations teams to configure their own local business process automations and rapidly design, build, test and deploy new business process automations with all the functionality and IT governance required to support enterprise operations. At this point, more than 300 processes have been automated by over 1,000 robots. Already, organizations like Fidelity Investments, Telefonica, University Hospitals Birmingham, and RWE npower have jumped on the robotics train.
  • Robotics manufacturers – the big ones – are already looking at ways they can place their robotics into a data center. Big robotics makers like FANUC are already developing smaller, smarter and much faster robotics. The idea is to create new lines of data center-ready robotics capable of scaling racks and truly optimizing the data center. The future of the physical robot is very bright. These machines will continue to get smaller and develop new sensors capable of analyzing equipment, computer parts, and negotiating intelligent machine routes.

The future of the data center will have to incorporate new levels of automation. Whether this is cloud-based software automation. or creating direct data center robotics automation protocols. next-generation data center models will require new levels of control.

Before we get into the next article in this series it’s important to note a few important points. First of all, robotics are NOT here to replace you. Although companies like Blue Prism certainly spell trouble for some outsourcing organizations. It really revolves around the evolution of both technology and the data center. You can either embrace new ways to compute and control your data center, or you can stand to the side.

Secondly, robotics is not here to replace intricate business processes or people who need to do unique job tasks. Robots, ideally, replace repetitive tasks and allow those administrators to focus on higher-level business and technology-oriented projects. These knowledge workers and thought-leaders will always be necessary to make a data center run optimally.

Finally, the major obstacles currently facing robotics are found on two fronts: technology and economics. Currently, it might not make any sense for a data center to attempt a retro-fit with robotics when they know their existing data center is old and out dated. Similarly, for some data center operators – there may not be a financially feasible fit for robotics at this time. Either way, before jumping into the robot pool. make sure you do quite a bit of research to ensure the longevity of your robotics initiative.

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 National Director of Strategy and Innovation at MTM Technologies, a Stamford, CT based consulting firm.

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3 Comments

  1. Great series on Robotics in the data center. I remember the ADIC Scalar, they actually had robotic arms that removed and replaced tapes. I agree that robotics will not replace humans in the datacenter, but rather free up people for more important tasks and enable systems at a larger scale. The development of physical datacenter standards like IO's modular infrastructure or Open Compute architecture will enable robotics. I could see a robotic function to service basic maintenance of a modular ecosystem where physical dimensions are well defined. Is robotic vision and automation up to the point now where it could pull a server and replace a failed DAS, and return it to the rack? None of this happens without a robust automation layer managing the datacenter stack from physical up to the hypervisor.

  2. Bill Kleyman Post author

    @Greg - Excellent comment and thought! Yes, robotics and automation is really coming a long way. I feel that with a bit more standardization -- we're going to start seeing even greater adoption rates around robotics. Already, server/chassis makers are chatting with robotics folks to see how they can best structure their converged systems to better support automation and robotics. We'll certainly be seeing even more automation around both the logical and physical layers within the data center. Thank you again for reading!

  3. GSS

    Cannot fight the changer. Others earlier did not want guys with green eye shades and big ledger books replaced. Do we go back to stone tablets?