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The world’s insatiable appetite for data continues to grow unabated, driven by a vast uptake of mobile and smartphone devices globally.

More than half the planet’s population now owns a smartphone, while two-thirds owns a mobile device of some type. The associated increase in data demand – from business applications to social media to HD video – will put increasing pressure on networks and data centres across the world.

The replacement of 4G LTE with 5G in the next few years will further fuel demand. To cope, telecom operators will need to upgrade the capacity of their access and backhaul networks by laying down more fibre. The specific demands on data centres may require a revolution, rather than merely an upgrade.

Increase in Internet usage

Investing in 5G is not optional, given the projected increase in internet uptake. While Internet usage is rising everywhere, the pace of change is especially noticeable in the Asia Pacific, APAC, region, now home to more than half the world’s Internet users. It’s little wonder that this area is also home to 54 per cent of the world’s social media users. 2016 saw APAC account for 70% of global growth in Internet usage, with another bumper 12 months expected across 2017.

Uptake elsewhere has been more muted, especially in Europe. However, Europeans have embraced the Internet since its inception, with penetration in the UK alone reaching 94.8% in 2017 – the highest of any top-20 Internet using nation. With such a well-developed base, it's not surprising that growth in Europe is more subdued than in APAC and other regions. That said, year-on-year growth in Europe did increase by 3% - to 637 million users.

In the realm of data, no nation or region is an island; as Asian consumption rises, East-West data transfers will increase, and data centres and networks from Birmingham to Beijing will need to keep up.

Image representing the network
Internet of Things

Much anticipated though it may be, the Intent of Things, IoT, remains an embryonic market, but one whose growth will almost certainly be accelerated with the advent of 5G. Billions of automated home systems, autonomous vehicles and other devices will join billions of handheld devices. These devices may not consume huge amounts of data as they communicate with each other, but they will demand super low latencies – something that 5G will deliver much more effectively than current 4G LTE networks.

Latency rates of 1 millisecond are being discussed in relation to 5G, but current data centres and networks would struggle to deliver this. A wider geographical distribution of data centres is probable in order to be closer to both end users and mobile communication towers. This may be a necessary measure for ensuring new home automation systems, IoT, mobile payment services and even connected car systems – among others – function smoothly.

The number of connected devices was recorded at 7.9 billion in 2015, and is expected to grow to 11.6 billion in 2020, according to projections from Cisco. Much of this growth will be driven by IoT.

Meanwhile, according to Cisco's Global Cloud Index, traffic is set to more than double between 2016 and 2019 to 10.4 zettabytes, a surge in traffic with huge implications for data centres worldwide. Swift up-scaling of data centre architecture will be necessary, with a heavy emphasis on automation.

Leaf-spine architectures

Enterprising data centres are incorporating leaf-spine architectures to deal with the anticipated traffic passing between east and west. This technology, while offering multiple benefits over three-tier solutions, has the drawback of more connections, which means more testing; copper connects servers to ToR switches, while single-mode fibre connects ToR and the leaf-spine switches. Fibre connections will also be used as redundant paths for back-up.

It’s likely that these fibre optic networks will demand more stringent loss budget and reflectance specifications. Meanwhile, as the cost of optical transceivers and pluggables becomes an issue among web-scale enterprises, some manufacturers are responding by producing solutions with fewer features. The subsequent risk of less powerful products puts the onus on operators to carry out swift connection pass/fail tests, while ensuring universal optical connector cleanliness.

Network functions virtualisation

Critical to the swift and successful rollout of 5G will be the implementation of NFV, network functions virtualization. NFV enables functions to be performed virtually on standard IT servers managed through IT automation setups, as opposed to custom-designed hardware – as is more common at present. Telecom operators appreciate the flexibility and speed possible with cloud solutions, having witnessed their successful implementation by web-scale operations.

Web-scale enterprises are also influencing telecom operators in their approach to development. Swifter DevOps approaches utilised by web-scales are likely to be favoured by operators over slower “waterfall” solutions.

Effective service assurance systems

As 5G approaches, big changes are afoot in data centres globally, bringing big challenges. Such high-paced innovation will demand service assurance systems that can adjust effectively – able to cope with an ecosystem comprising both physical and virtual elements.

Prudence will be required as automation facilitates the rapid upgrades necessary. Harnessing the succeeding generation of service assurance and monitoring solutions with their powerful analytics tools will be crucial to carry out the ongoing testing necessary for success.

Affecting an end-to end strategy will also be key, given the expected geographically disparate nature of associated physical and virtual resources.

There’s no doubting that the introduction of 5G represents a paradigm shift for data centres worldwide, demanding immediate action – of the intelligent and prudent variety.

photo of Craig Hindmarsh
Craig Hindmarsh
is the head technology writer at Punchy Content, and has over 10 years’ experience writing in the technology sector. We have commissioned Craig to write a series of thought-provoking blogs on a variety of subjects for us in 2018.