Data Center Evolution Trends


Data Center Evolution Trends

TE's Nathan Tracy, Manager of Industry Standards, discusses the major trends in data center connectivity, including power solutions, power management, and lessons learned.


The demand on data center capabilities is going through the roof, no matter which services the data center supports. Whether we're talking about a cloud operator who's focused on the search function, or social media, or e-commerce (and many of them dabble in all of these different realms); outsourcing and hosting web services for various companies and various organizations; or supporting internal enterprise applications, a tsunami of data is moving onto the cloud, and data centers have to try and support it. The statistics are mind-blowing:


  • Over the last 10 years, we've seen the typical switching unit of measure that we look at from the standpoint of networking in the cloud go from 640 gigabits per second to 25 terabits per second. Within a couple of years, we'll be talking about 51 terabits. 
  • The number of connections that are made to the cloud are increasing much faster than the population – at a 10% compound annual growth rate. 
  • The number of connected users is increasing at a 6% compound annual growth rate. 
  • The types of connections are changing, from primarily home PCs to cell phones. 
  • Machine-to-machine connections are growing to become a huge percentage of the demand. By about 2023, we expect that machine-to-machine connections will be upwards of 50 percent of all the connections to the internet.


So, it’s clear that internet connections are changing, and data centers have to evolve to keep up.

Evolving Applications Grow Cloud Traffic

Video is a huge driver of cloud traffic, but let's think about how video technologies have changed over the years. We all watched standard-definition TV a few years ago, and then we went to HDTV, which is four times the bit rate of standard-definition TV. The next thing is 4K video, which is double the bit rate of HDTV, and 8K video is on the horizon. 


And it’s not only video traffic. Look at Wi-Fi: there has been an explosion in the number of Wi-Fi hotspots, and there are more mobile devices on each of those hotspots. A typical home can have 6 or more devices connected to a hotspot. The data rate that those hotspots can support is also increasing, so it just adds onto the demand. 


5G cellular networks are also coming into use now, and doing it much more quickly than previous generations of mobile technology. When 2G cellular technology was rolled out, it took 14 calendar quarters for it to get it as high as 17.8 million connections. It took 4G technology 10 quarters to get to 17.8 million connections. But with 5G, four quarters is all it's taken to get to that same 17.8 million connections. So the world is moving faster, and everything is driving tremendous pressure and growth expectations onto cloud data centers. 


Finally, user habits have changed. Covid-19 forced people to work and learn from home, and it's been a tremendous stress test. The network has held up well in the face of these new usage habits – those people who started working from home in early 2020 continue to work from home to a much larger degree than in the past. 


All of these developments keep network managers on their toes in terms of the timeline, the roadmap, and when they need to be ready to enable the next steps in data center evolution.





Technical Challenges

Increasing the demand on the network creates technical challenges. The data rate benchmark is easy for us to consider, whether we're talking about gigabits per second or terabits per second. When we increase those data rates, we run into the laws of physics: data loss increases as we increase the data rate. There are certain things that we can do to mitigate that impact, but we can't totally eliminate it. 


Data loss decreases the distance that we can send a signal at a higher data rate. How do we overcome that? We can change some of the modulation schemes that we use in optical transceivers. And when we do that, we have to optimize our connectivity solutions for those different modulation formats. 


Also, as you go to higher data rates, you dissipate more power, so the power demand in the data center is increasing. We need to find power solutions to allow more power in the data center. And of course, if a data center is consuming more power, then it is also dissipating more power, so we also have heat problems. We have to figure out how to operate the network in a warmer environment. 


As we’ve seen, there’s a combination of challenges that must be dealt with. 

Potential Solutions

In some applications, data center operators are looking at changing their power architecture –  changing from an AC to a DC structure to optimize the power consumption and leveraging the conversion efficiencies from that. In terms of the thermal management challenge, data centers are now deploying 400-Gigabit Ethernet as the standard data rate. With that comes a significant increase in the power dissipation of the optical transceivers in use. 


Connectivity vendors have responded to these changes by developing thermal management solutions that enable them to keep optics running cooler and more reliably higher-temperature environments. In the same way, copper cable solutions are being optimized for 400-Gigabit bandwidths that enable them to maximize the reach as much as possible at this new higher data rate. 


Finally, vendors and data center customers must share information effectively in order to create new generations of solutions. All data centers have roadmaps – they understand where their bottlenecks are today, and they have a plan about how to overcome them. Vendors can do a great job of bringing out technology that addresses those bottlenecks or those weak links, but connectivity and component vendors have to know about customers’ roadmaps. Of course, each vendor needs to operate with a degree of secrecy and stealth because it's how they differentiate themselves, but there are ways that data centers can communicate to the industry and to component suppliers so that vendors can be ready when they need to step forward and address that next-generation industry roadmap. 


For data center operators, keeping up with ever-evolving data rates, bandwidth needs, applications and services is a continuous battle. But by working with industry partners, these operators can rise to the challenge and meet growing demands.