After years of data being consolidated to central cloud data centers, it’s being pushed back out. But where will it be stored?

Meet the “micro edge” data center. However, it isn’t as simple to define as it sounds, according to panelists at the recent infra/STRUCTURE summit in downtown Toronto.

“Micro means small, right? The definition of small varies,” said Carsten Baumann, director of strategic initiatives for Schneider Electric. “From a hyperscale perspective, their small data center might be five megawatts. That’s small for them, but it’s super large for somebody else.” When Schneider Electric looks at edge applications, a micro edge data center could be as simple as a single server sitting in a chassis on the manufacturing floor.

Meanwhile, a hospitality or smart manufacturing environment could have a megawatt of capability on-site that could be considered a micro edge data center. “An Amazon distribution center has a megawatt data center capacity to run the facility,” Baumann said. What’s murky about defining a micro edge data center is that it all depends on the size of the business — it could be megawatts or kilowatts.

Broadly, an edge data center could be broken into three categories:

  • A micro edge data center could be a “mini data center.” This is popular with startups looking to meet their edge computing needs and reduce how far Internet traffic needs to travel.
  • A “micro mobile data center” has its own self-contained infrastructure and security, and incorporates all the necessary hardware, power, cooling, and management tools for a data center. It can be a viable alternative for large-scale data centers and well-suited for manufacturing environments.
  • A prefabricated modular data center is easily installed and dismantled when necessary because it’s designed to be highly scalable, portable, and flexible — it can be adapted to meet changing needs and varying workloads.

Chris Lowman, sales manager with Vertiv, agreed that a micro edge data center could be as simple as a single rack — a “mini-computer room” that could be placed on a shop floor. However, micro edge is usually envisioned as being containerized, modular, and prefabricated with the necessary power, cooling, security, and containment. It’s almost a standard configured product now, he said.

“Containerized” is synonymous with a micro edge data center, in that you could drop one into a specific location for a particular project, said Josh Rayner, VP of sales for Hut 8 Mining. A cell site would also be considered a micro edge data center.

In many ways, modular micro edge data centers aren’t a new thing, noted moderator Jabez Tan, head of research for conference host company Structure Research. A decade ago, they were called “prefabricated data centers” or “modular containerized.” But this prefabricated approach never really took off, and even now there are barriers to adoption.

Rayner said there’s a lot of work for edge modular data centers to get true enterprise adoption. “It’s just significantly easier to go with a cloud provider who has infrastructure in place, and who you can point and click and scale.” He said there’s a lot more that needs to happen before deploying the containerized solution, but there will be demand.

One path to adoption for micro edge data centers is to incorporate them into new builds of any facility. Still, it must be at the outset, as the construction industry generally pushes back on something else coming onto their job site after a project has already been priced.

The landscape has changed, however, and the panel’s consensus is that new content delivery methods enabled by 5G are driving the need for micro edge data centers for use cases that didn’t exist a decade ago. “The digitization of everything, whether it’s smart cities, smart warehouses, smart manufacturing, you name it, these are new use cases which require new assets like a micro data center,” said Baumann.

Some of today’s networks have adopted the concept of decentralized computing, such as Livepeer, which operates a platform for decentralized live video broadcasts on the Internet. Rayner said these networks are maturing and very new. “What it means for the end user is you can pick a geographic region where your computer resides, but you don’t know exactly where it physically resides.” He said it could be in a tier-one or tier-three data center — even a lone computer someone is renting out. “It essentially creates an environment where the edge is everywhere if you don’t know where your computer sits.”

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