The global interest in smart cities should capture the attention of any data centre operator. Connected devices are no use without the compute power to bring all of their data together and extract the information which can transform the efficiency of cities. Without a data centre, smart cities will be dumb.

Why the smart city drive?

Whilst "smart city" can sound futuristic, the drivers are very real and very current. It addresses environmental concerns to reduce carbon consumption (and other waste), and it achieves cost savings across five key verticals - transport, energy, waste, water and assisted living. Given that urbanisation is increasing and by 2030 over 92% of the UK's population will live in a city (according to the World Resources Institute), these pressures are only going to increase.

The global market for smart city solutions (and the services required to deliver them) therefore unsurprisingly predicted to be some £408 billion by 2020. Funds are likely to come from both public and private sectors. The report commissioned by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills in October 2013 indicates the UK government's interest in being a world leader in this area. The UK has been the most prolific user of the Horizon 2020 fund established by the European Commission to run pilots for smart cities. Whether this trend continues post Brexit, given the funding that had been made available through Europe, remains to be seen but it could be an area which actually comes to greater prominence as a result. The massive cost savings that could be realised for utilities should also stimulate private investment; a 2013 survey of water utilities found that utility companies could save between $7.1 billion and $12.5 billion each year by using smart water solutions.

What do data centres need to provide to enable smart cities?

Smart cities will collect data from the IoT and connected sensors embedded in the physical infrastructure of cities. This data will be analysed to extract information to perform functions like direct cars to free parking spaces, redirecting traffic around accidents, managing power based on demand and turn lights and heating off in buildings when not in use.

To meet the needs of these data-driven cities, data centres will need to be capable of handling vast quantities of data. The 130 Exabytes now running across global networks will be dwarfed by the 40,000 Exabytes predicted by 2020. Processing more data does not require data centres to get bigger (although with the demise of More's law that may change) but it certainly does require a lot more power. This needs to be factored in to the choice of location, arrangements with the national grid and contracts for back-up power in the event of outages.

Many of the advantages of smart cities will come through real-time processing of this data. For example, sensors in the road will adapt traffic light sequencing to minimise queuing traffic. Low latency will therefore be critical to ensure almost instantaneous response. This leads to the need for data centres that are physically close to the cities that they will serve. These are known as 'edge' data centres, being literally on the 'edge' of the network, close to where the real-world data is being collected and where an output needs to occur. These will be very different to the hyperscale data centres that we associate with the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Google today.

Resiliency and reliability will also be fundamental to the safe, 24/7 operations. Recent outages at hospitals have hit headlines, with operations cancelled or postponed, and the occasional outages in some of the major cloud providers' operations also cause major disruptions to a variety of their corporate customers. The risk of a connected city going dark would clearly have major implications for citizens in their homes, individual businesses and safety.

Security will clearly be a major concern too. If cities are going to be run by connected networks, the security of that network will be paramount to protect against malicious attacks, hacks and take-overs. Adding many more access points to a network creates a security threat, which those intent on creating large bot-nets have already taken advantage of using home wi-fi routers, IP security cameras and digital video recorders. Operators of critical networks and essential infrastructure within an ecosystem, including data centre operators as the guardians of the physical aspects of security, will need to work together to provide the best cyber-security possible.

DCs as a part of the fabric of the smart city

As major consumers of power themselves, the data centre will need to conform to the energy-efficient, smart energy ethos of the smart city. Achieving a low power usage effectiveness (PUE) has long been a mark of a well-designed data centre but it will be critical to walk the walk within a smart city. As businesses with experience of energy management systems, there could even be scope for outsourcing of this knowledge to others within the ecosystem.

Data centres even have the key to unlock one of the challenges to operating a smart city: power generation. Data centres all have redundant generators within their infrastructure which are maintained and tested so that if there was a grid outage, the generators would keep the lights on until the grid came back on. For the vast majority of the time though, these valuable assets sit idle. Some operators are already in discussions with the grid to sell power back to the grid at peak times using their own generators. In a city with a smart energy monitoring system which could manage power inputs from multiple sources and direct power to where it was needed, when it was needed, data centres can become both the consumer and the producer.

To truly embrace the ethos of energy and waste management though, data centres need to look to their own waste: heat. The Scandinavian countries put the rest of Europe to shame with their heat exchange systems where waste heat from a data centre is used to heat houses, businesses and water. Working examples like this in the UK are few and far between but this would be the end result of a truly smart city.

Power to the data centre!

As the boundaries between our physical and digital lives blur, our realities become augmented and we rely increasingly on the power of the smart-everything to optimise our lives, there is no doubt that the data centre will play a fundamental role in our towns and economies. The size and design of the data centre may need to change to accommodate advances in processing capacity, power consumption and federated vs hyperscale models, but there is no chance that a smart city will exist without one.

This article originally appeared in Data Centre News, April 2017.

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