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Gigabit Special Report: Smart city data centres

Gigabit Magazine explores the changing face of smart cities and how edge computing is key to meeting the data centre demands of an increasingly urbanised future

Gigabit Magazine explores the changing face of smart cities and how edge computing is key to meeting the data centre demands of an increasingly urbanised future.

Human history has, you could argue, been one long, sustained gravitation towards the city in the search for power, work, safety, culture, opportunity, fame, fortune, companionship and - increasingly - a better cup of coffee. The city’s presence in the collective human consciousness is monolithic and colossal. From the stark skyscrapers and sleek monorails of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the dancing neon and searchlights that criss-cross the sky in Katsuhiro Otomo’s vision of Neo Tokyo, the city has forever been a cumulative expression of humanity’s greatest achievements and deepest subconscious identity. 

In 1950, just over 751mn people lived in cities. Today, that figure has grown to exceed 4.2bn. More than half of the world’s population live in cities, a figure that the United Nations predicts will reach as high as 68% by 2050, adding a further 2.5bn people to urban environments around the globe. Our cities are getting bigger, more crowded and more numerous. Right now, more than 120 new cities are under construction in over 40 countries. Urban environments that grew organically to accommodate the movements of the horse and cart now contend with the movements of millions of cars every day

Congestion is far from the only challenge that the swelling ranks of urban humans face: pollution, longer food supply chains, crime, climate change, income inequality, siloed and unwieldy government bureaucracy, corruption, lack of access to healthcare, housing and education - all these factors and more contribute to make meeting the challenges of the modern city a daunting task. This doesn’t mean it’s not a task worth rising to. 

The midday sun beats down over Dubai, sparkling against the glass tower of the Burj Khalifa and the waters of the Persian Gulf. A dozen rotors disturb the boiling air as an autonomous, electric passenger drone lowers itself through the sky and onto a docking station, ready to carry a young family in the direction of downtown. 

In the 3,500 person city of Kalasatama - which is being built on the outskirts of Helsinki, Finland - an elderly man drops a bag of refuse into a vacuum tube that carries it away to an underground disposal centre. He doesn’t have to brave the sharp winter air and he hasn’t been stuck behind a garbage truck since he moved here. Adding up the time reclaimed by anti-congestion measures and other town planning, Kalasatama’s developers say that living there gives every resident, on average, an hour of their day back that the rest of the world spends in traffic or in line for goods and services.  

Thought to trace its roots back more than 10,000 years, Matera in southern Italy is - after Jericho and Aleppo - thought to be the third-oldest city in the world. Today, at the end of a long and often troubled past, the ancient stones of the cliffside city are soon to be covered by one of the first 5G networks in Europe. Old meets new, as tourists to Matera can experience the city using extensive augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offerings. 

All around the world, cities are using technology to make their streets safer and less congested, their air more breathable, and to provide more complete and convenient experiences to the people that live in them. However, networks of autonomous vehicles, augmented reality experiences, and AI-powered digital displays - along with traffic monitoring systems, facial recognition technology, machine learning enabled garbage collection and virtually every other smart city solution - requires something: data. 

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“The ultimate goal for smart cities should be to utilise the insights that will allow for the improvement and development of the physical world around us,” says Wael Elrifai, VP of Big Data, IOT and AI at Hitachi Vantara. “Unlocking today’s data centre capabilities will be a game changer for this success.” For smart cities to function successfully, cutting edge data infrastructure is a necessity. “It’s no secret that in order for smart cities to become fully integrated they need a data-centric solution that will remove the strain from the existing data infrastructure. Data centres will play a pivotal role here in building the cities of the future as IoT and smart applications require improved connectivity, data storage and computing power,” Elrifai continues. 

The modern data centre landscape has seen dual trends take hold of it in the last few years. First, the maxim that “bigger is better” has seen global adoption of hyperscale facilities reach new heights. A large driver behind the construction of these large, centralised facilities is market regulation. Because a data centre is one of the biggest consumers of energy in a modern city, their construction is highly controlled in markets like Europe, where cities like Amsterdam - the region’s largest data centre hub - are starting to put the kibosh on any new builds at all. 

However, this creates an issue. Smart cities - particularly those investing heavily in IoT - are finding themselves generating actionable insights from their data more quickly and efficiently. “In the event of a serious car accident, edge computing can process the vehicle data and alert local services,” adds Ciaran Dynes, SVP of Talend. “Another example of how smart cities are harnessing edge computing is with traffic management. With the help of connected car startups like wejo, relevant organisations across the city can get better real-time predictions and accuracy on routings. This can help reduce congestion by re-routing away from high-traffic routes. This data can also be used to help urban planners design roads and cities based on movement.”

Ankur Singla, founder and CEO of Volterra notes that “these projects generate huge amounts of data; so much that it can’t all be sent back to the cloud in order to be processed or stored securely. Even though 5G will bring real-world bandwidth improvements of around four to six times, the economics still don’t work. It just doesn’t make financial sense to send this amount of data to the cloud for analytics”.

In such a climate, though it’s easier for enterprises to obtain permission for a single hyperscale facility than for a dozen edge facilities, the economics of bandwidth are demanding a new solution. Which brings us to trend number two: the rise of the Edge. 

The exponential explosion of data ignited by a smart city, supporting everything from self-driving trash cans to citywide facial recognition technology, creates a problem that modern networks and hyperscale data centres alike are ill equipped to cope with. For Daniel Valle, EMEA Chief Technologist at World Wide Technology (WWT), the problem is simple. “As demand for connected services increases, so too does the congestion across the network,” he explains. “Therefore, there is a direct correlation between the volume of deployed devices and the need for edge computing solutions. Hosting edge computing nodes closer to the network edge where the data is generated will be a huge focus for carriers and digital urban planners alike. Network traffic which does not need to flow through a core before being delivered back to the device leads to faster response times and more efficient citizen services.” 

Going forward, citizen-centric smart cities like Barcelona - which have seen sweeping initiatives improve the quality of every service from water management to transportation - will be, the experts believe, driven more than anything by the migration of data centre infrastructure to the edge. “At the heart of all smart cities are the digital technologies that offer important potential for transformation. In recent years, edge computing has one of these digital technologies creating a buzz within the smart cities space due to the many IoT-based use cases it enables,” concludes Valle. 

“Unlike the centralised vision before it, edge computing presents a new decentralised way of seizing the opportunities and tackling the hazards brought about by urban transition. Edge computing allows large amounts of complex data to be processed and analysed instantaneously at the devices themselves. This has been recognised as essential in removing barriers and fulfilling visions like autonomous driving. Moving forward cities all over the world will be looking for ways to include edge computing into their architecture.”

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