Fueling Data Center Growth on the Edge of the Grid

By Tom Elowson, Data Center Specialist on July 10, 2018
Tom Elowson
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An article from The RAND Corporation, celebrating the life of Paul Baran, tells the story of how the idea of a distributed network to make U.S. command and control communications resilient in the 1960s resulted in a transformative change for us all. It was at the height of the Cold War in 1962 when a nuclear clash between the United States and the Soviet Union was quite possible. The original aim was to find a way to keep the country’s command and control capabilities operable after such a confrontation. The article tells how Paul Baran, “a researcher at RAND, offered a solution: design a more robust communications network using ‘redundancy’ and ‘digital’ technology.” It further notes, “at the time, naysayers dismissed Baran’s idea as unfeasible. But working with colleagues at RAND, Baran persisted,” and packet switching technology was born.

Wikipedia details how, “In 1969, when the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) started developing the idea of an internetworked set of terminals to share computing resources, the reference materials that they considered included [that of] Baran and the RAND Corporation.” This technology, together with the TCP/IP Internet protocol, formed the underlying technical foundation for the Internet. I personally saw the benefit of Paul’s innovation a decade later in my work at BBN Computer Corporation, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as they built the first packet switched network to connect the distributed nodes of the early Internet.

Today, the world is experiencing a similar shift from a centralized to a distributed system. This time, the catalysts of change are energy and data, which constitute the lifeblood of our digital lives. The driver seems to be an intersection between processing and storing data in the cloud (with a need to move ever closer to where data is generated and used) and technological improvements in renewable energies that enable for local power generation at the edge of the traditional, centralized electricity grids.

This was the illustration used by Paul Baran to explain the evolution from a centralized system to a distributed one, which became the basis for the early Internet.

Smaller Clouds for a Mobile World

With the explosive growth in the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Industrial Internet of Things (expected to dwarf IoT devices by a factor of 10:1); autonomous cars, drones, and robots; and mobile usage everywhere, “edge” data centers are on the rise. Wikipedia defines the concept of edge data centers as: “A method of optimizing cloud computing systems by taking the control of computing applications, data, and services away from some central nodes (the “core”) to the other logical extreme (the “edge”) of the Internet which makes contact with the physical world.” It’s an important development; as the sheer volume and real-time nature of data increases, so does the inefficiency of streaming it back and forth from a central cloud located hundreds or thousands of miles away. As a result, data centers are decentralizing compute power, placing it closer to where their customers are and where data is generated for better latency and faster processing.

A few weeks ago, an article from the Data Center Journal explored some of the implications of edge data centers. They called it “game-changing for SMBs [small and medium-sized businesses]—from financial institutions to health-care providers, schools, law firms and more. After all, edge data centers are bringing the Internet closer to these businesses as well as their customers or patrons. Edge facilities deliver more bandwidth and lower latency to second- and third-tier cities while reducing network congestion; such factors are increasingly important for businesses regardless of vertical, size or reach.”

It is not hard to visualize how, in a mobile world, where people and devices send and receive data from the cloud 24/7, the future of computing looks distributed―just like Paul Baran’s diagram above. The implications of this decentralization trend for the grid are transformative.

Edge Energy for Edge Computing

An edge computing future will create a cloud of clouds. Just like the World Wide Web, this distributed architecture will enable data to not only move faster and more efficiently but will also make for a more resilient cloud that ensures our data is resistant to all types of natural and man-made disasters. For this to be possible, however, a similar distributed energy system needs to emerge.

Greentech Media (GTM) calls this energy system the “grid edge” and defines it as: “technologies and business models that advance a decentralized, distributed, and transactive energy grid.” GTM adds, “grid edge technologies can help contribute to a more efficient, flexible, and reliable electricity system.”

As we wrote back in May, innovation has advanced to the point where the edge, once seen as resource-poor when it came to electricity, can now be untethered and thrive with power. This is innovation that is already transforming the grid from a centralized to a distributed system, just as the cloud is. Driving this transformation are advances in the production of renewable electricity from solar, wind and hydrogen that can be locally produced and available 24/7―especially if systems like Hydrogen 2.0 are used to help solve for the variability of wind and solar.

Advances in IoT are also important for the realization of a truly distributed energy system. Untethered devices of all types feed energy to and from the grid, serving to speed up the decentralization of electricity’s consumption and production. IoT devices also make the system smarter by reacting to information to maximize the efficiency of a distributed network of localized electricity production and consumption. In our article, we pointed to some statistics from NetworkWorld on how “the Smart Electric Grid is actually one of the largest IoT deployments, with an estimated 500 million meters installed to date,” which is “expected to grow to 1 billion by 2020.”

Distributed Energy Can Provide Progress For All

Edge data centers make for a sound business case to move to a distributed energy system at a faster pace. There is also the human case to move away from the old, centralized system of delivering energy: a billion people without access to electricity. Finally, there is the case for our environment. Distributed energy makes for smart use of power that is renewable and efficient, based on local conditions and resources, to help us reduce greenhouse gases.

All in all, a distributed energy system makes sense for a thriving world all around. Getting there faster using the technology that is available now can prove as transformative for the lives of the connected and the unconnected, as the genius work of Paul Baran proved instrumental for the development of the early Internet.


Illustration from RAND historical archives.
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