I'm always impressed by the creativity of our editorial team. We try to do something new every year, and this year is no different. So, when the team came to me and asked me to create a fun list of data center 'un-predictions,' I was all over it.
We are all familiar with the massive growth in our industry. At a recent conference in Austin, I heard about single deal sizes in the 300 MW range. And that in the next year, we'll see 500 MW and even 1 GW opportunities to build digital infrastructure. But these predictions are pretty spot on. We'll see unprecedented growth in our industry with generative AI and LLMs.
But let's have a little bit of fun together. Let's look at the top five un-predictions that won’t happen in our industry soon. And if you feel otherwise, there's a neat little comment section below my article. Or we can continue the un-prediction conversation on LinkedIn.
With that, let's look at the list:
1. Data Centers Will Be on the Moon in Five Years
Just imagine a facility run by space data center engineers. Pretty cool, right? But what are the actual chances of this happening? Who is about to send a data center into space? Who would be wild enough to accomplish such a tall task? The data center industry can!
A data center on the moon would be amazing. We could process more data much closer to critical interstellar equipment. And we could learn so much more about our solar system and universe. But step one is getting a data center into space. I have some good news: Two short years ago, humanity first deployed a conventional data center in space. The HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 – a set of HPE Edgeline Converged EL4000 Edge and HPE ProLiant machines, each with an Nvidia T4 GPU to support AI workloads – was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2021.
It may be small, but the first edge computing data center is now operational in outer space. One of the jobs it's doing is DNA analysis. Previously, astronauts would have their DNA tested once a month, and the data sent down to Earth for processing. Now, the processing occurs on the ISS, and the results are sent down to Earth. This dramatically reduces the amount of data that needs to be transmitted.
However, while the launch of experimental facilities like the HPE Computer bodes well for the long-term success of space-borne data centers, it’s unlikely that we will see a facility set up on the moon soon.
2. Communities Will Continue to Shun New Developments
I experienced my first protestors at a data center event a few months ago. The good news is that we quickly went from picketing to meaningful conversations with the local community.
The potential impact of data centers on local communities is an important issue. At a recent conference in Virginia, we had activists from the community right alongside data center leaders to discuss the challenges and opportunities we face. While there were still some disconnects, we met in the middle on some critical topics around power, community engagement, and ensuring we create a more sustainable future.
So, here’s my un-prediction: "Yes, in my backyard" will become the new data center industry slogan. In five years, communities will have softened their attitude toward developing new data centers. In five years, our facilities will go from nondescript buildings to essential parts of the community, much like a hospital or library. We'll find incredible ways to fund new public services and increase local communities' revenue. In five years, we will fully break down the barriers so that digital infrastructure will become synonymous with community development. I very much hope all that can happen.
3. Automation’s Momentum Will Halt
Back in 2013, I wrote an article on Data Center Knowledge about robotics in data centers and how fully automated facilities might become a reality within five years. Well, I was way off. This means it's a perfect time to bring this prediction back: Within five years, we'll have full-blown robotics in our facilities, helping operations, services, remote-hand capabilities, and even giving tours.
Leveraging self-driving technology, robots independently chart and traverse the data center, gathering real-time sensor data. This lets them immediately juxtapose present patterns against pre-defined norms, facilitating swift identification of deviations for human examination.
In an ever more interconnected and intricate environment, this robotic technology grants decision-makers enhanced visibility, rapidity, and a breadth of intelligence that surpasses what humans or stationary cameras can provide. This advanced capability is vital for maintaining the efficiency and security of data centers in our increasingly digital world.
But step one is ‘trusting the robot’ and giving it autonomy. Although, maybe this prediction isn't that far off. Gartner predicts that half of all cloud data centers will deploy advanced robotics by 2025. As the advantages of automated technologies become more evident, there is a growing consensus on the complementary roles of robots and humans in future data centers. The question is: how long will it be until fully automated data centers become the norm?
4. Data Center Innovation Will Stagnate
One of my mentors in this industry is the fantastic Peter Gross. He has been a major contributor to the foundation of the data center industry. One saying that he taught me sticks out the most: “The data center industry loves innovation – as long as it's ten years old.” The reality in our industry right now is that we don't have the luxury of waiting ten years. We don't even have the time to wait ten months.
So, here's the next big prediction. That saying will change to: The data center industry loves innovation as soon as it begins to impact the market.
The un-prediction part is that data center leaders will have to get very comfortable with new and nascent technologies far quicker than ever before. Whether it's a new battery technology or energy source, we no longer wait years to adopt these solutions. Our industry has shifted from a 'wait and see' strategy to one much more open to trying and testing new solutions.
5. Nuclear Power Will Never Become the Dominant Energy Source for Data Centers
I'm about to give you a sneak peek into the 2024 AFCOM State of the Data Center report. Last year, we asked the question of who would leverage nuclear power to support data center facilities. In 2023, we had 10% respond and say they'll use that technology. In our 2024 survey, not only did that figure more than double, but it also broke into the top three energy sources that data center leaders will be looking at.
Maybe this is another one of those not-so-far-out predictions. While nuclear energy still has its detractors, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already approved the first small modular reactor (SMR) design in the US: NuScale's advanced 'light-water' SMR, which can generate 77 MWe. In October, hosting provider Standard Power announced plans to use NuScale's SMRs to build two nuclear power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania to provide nearly 2 GW of power to nearby data centers by 2029. And if we look at the Northern Virginia market, in April 2023, Green Energy Partners, a property and project development company, purchased 641 acres for a project that includes using four to six SMRs to power 20 to 30 data centers, generate hydrogen fuel and provide backup power for Virginia's grid.
I predict nuclear power will become the dominant power source for power-hungry communities like NOVA to support continued digital infrastructure development without placing unnecessary burdens on an aging grid.
Never Stop Innovating
In the tapestry of our rapidly evolving digital era, data centers and digital infrastructure stand as the unsung heroes, pivotal in orchestrating our connected future. They are more than mere repositories of information or unmarked buildings on the outskirts of a major city; they are dynamic nerve centers that empower every facet of our digital lives, from cloud computing and AI-driven analytics to the vast Internet of Things.
As we navigate through an era marked by unparalleled digital connectivity, the robustness, scalability, and security of these infrastructures become not just beneficial but essential. They are the bedrock upon which our technological advancements, economic growth, and societal transformations are built. In essence, the future we envision – more innovative, more efficient, and profoundly interconnected – is inextricably linked to the evolution and resilience of our data centers and digital infrastructure. Their role in shaping this future is not just important; it is foundational and transformative. So, who knows … could we see a nuclear-powered data center on the moon in our lifetime? Maybe.