Unless you’ve been completely unplugged from the world of technology, you’ve likely heard about the growing interest in using robotics and AI to improve efficiency and operations. The data center industry is no exception. From IBM’s iRobot designed to track the data center’s temperature to the Scout bot created to monitor KAIST’s iCubeCloud Data Center, the use of robotics to streamline operations is a long-time desire for the industry as a whole for automating monotonous processes, facility monitoring, and security. Fold in a catalyst such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which is suggested to have boosted the idea of “lights-out,” or unmanned, data centers, and you have a trend that seems to be moving full speed ahead.
According to Gartner, half of cloud data centers will leverage advanced robots with AI and Machine Learning capabilities by 2025, which will reportedly increase data center operating efficiency by 30%. With a growing gap between the number of servers and storage volumes at data centers and the capable workers to oversee them, deploying robots will be critical for facilities in the coming years.
Likewise, the 2021 AFCOM State of the Data Center Report finds that 40% of surveyed respondents expect robotics and automation to soon become a regular piece of the data center landscape. Additionally, 16% of those surveyed already leverage robotics and autonomous systems in their centers, while another 35% indicated they plan to deploy similar solutions in the next three years.
While robotics will never completely replace humans in data center operations, they are being employed in data centers in new ways daily to assist their human counterparts with easily automatable tasks, particularly in large, distributed data center environments. Let’s explore the need for robots in data centers and more closely examine how the industry integrates robots into day-to-day operations.
The Need for Robots in Data Centers: Automation, Security, and Sustainability
Innovation begins with an unmet need, and arguably the greatest demand for robotic employees – in any industry, really – lies within automation. Recent publicized examples outside of data centers that come to mind include the expansion of food-delivering robots in restaurants and in retail, particularly for help with inventory control and warehouse staffing. Data center operations are often repetitive and monotonous tasks centered around gathering data or monitoring equipment. This means that most of certain employees’ time is dedicated to tasks such as scanning the barcodes on equipment to try and identify any potential issues and patrolling the data center to ensure its operational efficiency. This also means that if you’re looking for round-the-clock data, you will need employees on hand 24/7. Automating these repetitive processes via a robotic employee both removes the need for numerous personnel to perform the same job and also frees those employees from the burden of an often tiresome and uninteresting task, leaving them for tasks that require human thought. At Novva, we’re looking forward to the next phase of humanoid robots from Boston Dynamics that may be able to assist with lifting servers into cabinets, carrying payloads, and opening doors. NTT is another great example of using robotics in the data center environment, with the company and its committed partners training robots to become data center workers and optimize operations.
In addition to automation, security is another important task that can easily be automated with robots. Recent technological advances have provided the opportunity to use robotics for security measures. From facial recognition to completing temperature checks in a post-covid world, robots are a great channel for improving security. Effective data center security involves both digital and physical barriers between potential threats and protected data, both areas in which robots can be implemented. Take, for example, our own autonomous drones, which are programmed to run pre-defined missions, including perimeter checks and facility inspections, among other tasks. The autonomous security system is not only capable of navigating the facility on its own but can also record and assess data from both its environment as well as visitors. Not only do robots provide an opportunity for automated security, but when used like the example above, they also improve data center efficiency as a result.
A less discussed but hidden benefit of a robotic workforce is sustainability. With the automation of tasks and security, there is an opportunity to increase remote work among your human employees. This translates into more sustainable operations in a few different ways, remote work being one. With the ability to perform programming and other operational tasks remotely, the overall time spent commuting for your employees will decrease, effectively reducing their carbon footprint. Having a primarily remote workforce also means your center’s physical environment can be set to levels needed for efficiency rather than comfort, again reducing the amount of energy consumed by your center and its carbon footprint overall.
The Human Element
All this talk of robots and efficiency may have some wondering about the implications on the human workforce. After all, if Gartner is correct in its prediction of half of cloud data centers using robotics as soon as 2025, there is a very obvious question on everyone’s mind – “Will robots replace human employees?” While it may seem that way, adding robots and AI into data center operations is just that – an addition to the team. Not a replacement.
First, although robots will be automating many processes, they themselves are pieces of machinery that will need programming and maintenance. For each robot set to perform a specific task, there will need to be a human operator who not only programs the missions and tasks but also ensures the robot itself is maintained and working properly.
Not only does this present a new role for a human employee, but it also provides a more engaging role for that employee. When countless hours of data tracking and monitoring are being taken care of by robots, human employees are then freed up to examine the anomalies in that data. The automation of monotonous and repetitive tasks creates the space and time for human employees to utilize expanded skills and capabilities to fill other roles that work in tandem with their more repetitive counterparts. It’s easy to see the potential for robotic employees as an opposition to humans, but in reality, it’s the utilization of both that results in a more efficient data center.