Enhancing data centre interconnectivity for future scale
Big Interview

Enhancing data centre interconnectivity for future scale

By 2021, 95% of global data centre traffic will come from cloud services and applications. So how are data centre providers building for future hyperscale requirements? Jason McGee-Abe spoke to CTO Chris Sharp to find out how Digital Realty is readying itself for the imminent data onslaught

Cisco’s forecast that the cloud will account for all but 5% of all data centre traffic in a few years is quite frankly stunning to contemplate the surge and would have been unfathomable a decade ago. The Index estimated that the total volume of data passing through data centres will increase considerably too, from 6.8 zettabytes (ZB) in 2016 to 20.6ZB by 2021, representing a CAGR of 25%.

The forecast predicted that 628 hyperscale data centre will exist and traffic within hyperscale data centres will quadruple by 2021. However, addressing this rapidly evolving trend is not new to Digital Realty proclaims Chris Sharp as we speak a few weeks before ITW 2018.

Hyperscale: not new but hyper-challenging

“Hyperscale is hyper-challenging without the right supply chain,” a statement included on a Digital Realty slide from its investor day last year. “Have you ever been to Ashburn Virginia and seen some of the new campuses we’re building out there and seen the sheer scale that we’re operating at?” he asks me. “People are just in awe at the sheer scale of building L on our campus for example. After the call I received the ‘Ashburn Building L’ slide, which highlights the two aircraft carriers overlaid to give perspective on size.

“When people today try and paint hyperscale as some new trend, it’s not, we’ve seen it for a long time,” the CTO explains. “With Digital Realty’s heritage in our supply chain and landbank capabilities, we’re one of the few that can really efficiently and effectively do it. We’ve been doing hyperscale for some time and continually to do hyperscale for our customers.”

The sheer amount of demand coming from these cloud operators is forcing data centre providers to innovate quickly and be able to build at scale to remain relevant. “There have been some operators who are just evolving into the scale business now, talking about doing a hyperscale deployment of 5MW, but I think what’s lost on a lot people is that you’re selling to a cloud operator,” Sharp says. “If you go to them in the most general sense and talk to them about a 5MW need you have to show them line of sight to almost 15MW-20MW as they don’t want to get landlocked.”

That’s where Digital Realty is differentiating itself and its investment figures back this up. “We’re putting around $1 billion into the ground in 2018,” claims Sharp. The plans are consistent with its investment message off the back of Digital Realty completed its $7.6 billion acquisition of DuPont Fabros, which boosted its colocation offering and enhanced the combined company’s footprint and ability to serve its customers in the top US data centre metro areas. The company is offering a more comprehensive set of data centre solutions, from single-cabinet colocation and interconnection, all the way up to multi-megawatt hyper-scale deployments. It has a more expansive capability with its designs being able to better support its customers’ more cloud-centric needs.

With global data centre traffic projected to grow three-fold by 2021, developing new and existing sites, as well as its Service Exchange platform, are critical. “It’s very timely that Capacity’s two special reports in this issue are centered on data centres and cloud,” he says as the two are clearly becoming increasingly connected.

Sharp, who has over 20 years’ experience in the technology industry and prior to joining Digital Realty was responsible for cloud innovation at Equinix, says the Digital Realty Service Exchange platform not only provides the point-to-cloud access solution customers are searching for, it delivers consistent, secure, private connections to multiple clouds, which is also scalable – if bandwidth needs increase, so too does capacity. 

“Customers are consuming core components in a different manner today but ultimately it’s still a supply chain,” he explains. “There’s a consumer and a seller. Our customers have driven us to get a lot of efficiency through scale.”

Proximity matters

Digital Realty is positioning itself well to deliver interconnectivity with an expanding range of solutions on a global scale. “In the past, we looked at the fact that we do land banks and build these huge scale facilities that are superefficient and they can house the actual cloud infrastructure or the actual cloud data objects,” says Sharp. “With the advent of us moving into the colocation market and having our deep heritage there too now we can support those customers trying to consume or leverage the cloud, so there’s a mash-up of services to provide their own customers. 

“We talk a lot about this concept of ‘proximity matters’ and we can put a cabinet right next door to major cloud operators, which is the most efficient access mechanism to those cloud objects. You can’t do that with just a traditional colo.  You have to have a full suite of products to really support that.”

He stresses that it’s very important to educate customers that not all data centres are equal. It is a prerequisite to not just be able to access those clouds, but the efficiency associated with accessing those clouds. So what problems is the company facing? One problem Sharp says is how Digital Realty can better enable its partners – clouds, networks or multiple types of service providers. “We want to stay neutral to what we do best, but remove the complexity out of the overall architecture,” Sharp says. “The Service Exchange platform helps us with this. One of the things we can do is provide a single location where you can access multiple cloud on-ramps in a very non-technical manner. There’s a huge efficiency associated with a customer’s architecture being able to access all these cloud destinations from a very private, secure, high-throughput manner and the metrics that come out of those architectures are a huge advantage for their business.” 

Sharp can’t divulge details about the large cloud operators in particular, because of the secrecy around what infrastructure they have with Digital Realty and where they’re headed, but in the most general terms the CTO says that we can see a shift in the market whereby other competitors are having to change their offerings to try and offer scale. “That’s due to the fact that the clouds are telling them that they have to solve for a broader proportion of their architecture. In the most simplistic manner, these cloud operators have a network node and they have their compute infrastructure.”

He adds that some of Digital Realty’s competitors in the market have only focused on trying to win those network nodes, but what the cloud operators have created is a very efficient hairpin in the metro. “Because we can provide colo and scale, all enabled with interconnection, we can house both the network and compute nodes right within out campus environment, which provides the most efficient mechanism for customers to build out their hybrid cloud architectures. The majority of all our customers want to end up with this hybrid multi-cloud architecture, but most of them fail because of the complexity, but if you come to a provider like Digital Realty where we have the heritage of doing scale and colo, with our Service Exchange now you can access multiple types of clouds privately. A tagline which resonates well with this message is: how would you like the full benefit of all these public cloud infrastructures with zero public-facing infrastructure. People are very excited about that because it removes a lot of exposure and security risks associated with this.”

AI – the next frontier

“I’m still a firm believer of cloud and how it will mature over time but artificial intelligence (AI) is that next frontier that everyone is trying to get a first market mover advantage,” Sharp says. “It requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure to support these services and also a different type of infrastructure to support the power density and being able to cool that efficiently.” 

One of the major frontiers in the industry today is AI and one can see this through the amount of intellectual property and R&D dollars being invested in it. “The variability that we’ve already proven in the market to support the network and power density associated with these AI components is huge. The sheer power that a lot of these new processors and AI farms coming online require is tremendous, so you have to be mindful of how the traffic will bloom, but the infrastructure behind that traffic also needs to be housed in a very efficient space.”

This is why Sharp and Digital Realty are very excited with the work the company’s been doing and what the future has in store. The CTO adds: “AI is only as smart as the data set you feed it, so whoever can feed it the most efficiently can get a huge competitive advantage out of their architecture.” .  

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