Living closer to the edge

Reading through a number of industry blogs, it has been mooted, perhaps tongue in cheek, the time will come when every home will need, or have, its own data centre; purely because of the amount of connected devices around – potential 25 billion by 2020. Electrical Review talks to Kevin Brown, vice president for global data centre strategy and technology for Schneider Electric


Kevin, I know one of your colleagues has suggested data is going to need to live closer to the end user – edge computing. Could you tell me more about this?

I do think perhaps it is tongue in cheek, having a data centre in every home, this obviously depends on the definition of a data centre. We’ll come back to that. There is clearly a trend towards getting more devices to be more intelligent than in the past, so that we can make more intelligent decisions with that information, so the idea almost every device we have will be connected to the internet is a powerful concept and there is a lot of work going on in the industry to implement this Internet of Things to meet those customer needs.

One of the dynamics we, and others in the industry, see happening is as you start putting all these devices on the network there will certainly be bandwidth constraints and latency constraints which, depending on the application n you are running, might make it difficult for all that data to go back to one central data centre. As a result, this is where the concept of edge computing comes from. Instead of having one big data centre where all the information goes, instead you push out some of that computing to the so called edge, getting it closer to reduce latency and reduce bandwidth. Perhaps a perfect example of this today is contact distribution networks where, for companies like Netflix, who stream video, may find it cheaper to implement some smaller data centres closer to the edge so they can transmit those videos – which demand a lot of bandwidth over a large distance. That is an example, in our mind, of edge computing. That being said, there will be different versions of this. Generally at Schneider we believe there will be three different versions of this edge computing. One may be as simple as an embedded device that might not look that much different to your phone. For a residential house that may be all the computing power you need. A second one might be what we call a micro data centre, where it’s basically one rack, maybe two racks of equipment that are handling the needs of that application. The third may be a more typical looking data centre, what we would call a regional data centre, that may be a bit bigger and a little further away from the edge, but gives quite a bit of computing power. That is a general overview of what we see happening.

So this will apply to both commercial and residential buildings?

I think it will in that we figure it’s going to be very application specific. For instance, the industrial process control industry which historically has been run on very proprietary networks, and proprietary equipment,is now moving over to – and has been for a number of years – to more IT standard networks. There is a edge computing data centre in almost every industrial process control application, by definition. Email, for example, can be very well served through a large centralised data centre and may not require edge computing. There will be other applications that require the computing closer to the edge. An HVAC system and lighting in a commercial building may need more of a micro data centre because of the computing demands. The definition of a data centre is going to change as we go forward, the same function may be being performed, but with very different implementation.

Tell me more about Schneider Electric’s offerings in the micro data centre space.

I think wider industry is still working today to define a micro data centre. At Schneider our definition is very clear. A fully integrated micro data centre solution is in the region of one to ten racks, most of the industry thinks in terms of one rack of equipment. That is a completely converged physical infrastructure, with all the management tools, the cooling and the physical infrastructure needed for that one rack of equipment.These take different forms, some are very industrial/robust applications that are designed to be put almost anywhere, some look almost like office furniture, and you would have no idea you were sitting next to a data centre.Very quiet, and very focused on the aesthetics of the solution. There are others that look like a more traditional rack, perhaps you may have a server room you can use.

So the IT provision is kept quite separate?

That’s what is happening today. We have a lot of channel partners who can fully populate the solution and ship it out. At Schneider we are not doing that specific work today. We may do it from time to time when a customer requests it. We see a number of different models happening.

We have a wide set of solutions, and provide a pre-packaged physical infrastructure with defined parameters the client can support through the IT equipment.

What has really changed for us in the last 12-18 months, is we made the investment to take some of these solutions and ensure we can pull the whole solution together, the cooling, the management, the power distribution. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure the supply chain is in place and solutions are widely available.

It’s a much simpler approach now than the customer may have seen two years ago from this type of application.

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