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Bruce Edwards, RA, VP Strategic Relationships, Morrison Hershfield

Evolution of The Data Center: Six Key Drivers Shaping Data Centers of The FutureBruce Edwards, RA, VP Strategic Relationships, Morrison Hershfield

Over the last three decades, data centers have evolved from specialized individual facilities into a societal utility, as functionally and physically diverse and interconnected as the range of activities that comprise human existence.

Considering this remarkable evolution, how is it possible to plan for the continued development of data centers and what form they might take in the future?


For this discussion, the term “data center” encompasses the physical facility and the associated infrastructure that houses and supports a complement of information processing and communications systems, as well as the human personnel that manage these systems.

There are six driving forces fundamental to the data center planning process:

• The Mission Functional Model

• Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Equipment

• ICT and Facility Operations

• Facility Infrastructure

• The External Physical Environment

• The Business/Financial Environment


Defining the Mission Functional Model establishes the desired functional performance of the data center and determines the applications (“software”) needed to yield this functionality. These applications exist and operate based on physical Information and communications technology equipment (“hardware”), which exhibit the characteristics of form factor as well as power and cooling. These physical characteristics are aggregated to inform decisions regarding the data center’s requirements for space and critical power and cooling systems comprising the facility infrastructure.

Mission requirements then establish ICT resource availability criteria. Technology resource availability is derived from characteristics of reliability, fault tolerance, maintainability and intuitive operation. These system attributes are determined by the design of the system, to include elements of capacity, configuration, documentation and procedures. 

Recent developments and trends that are connected to key drivers will result in a future data center facility typology that is more complex and that will continue to evolve

And this is where underlying efforts extend beyond physical form to include operations. Additionally, the regulatory environment will influence both ICT and facility operations practices.

The external physical environment includes external factors that influence the physical constitution of the data center such as climate, weather, geology, hydrology, geography, demographics, and politics. Virtually all data center facilities are subject to the prevailing business/financial environment, from the range of possible business models to the practical aspects of funding and economic viability.

It is important to note that the relationships among these drivers are not strictly sequential. Although there is a certain progression from function to software and hardware to infrastructure and building, there are also loops of reversed influence. A functional requirement that results in the development of specific hardware might then result in that hardware making other unrelated functions possible, and a new line of business emerges.


Recent developments and trends connected with these key drivers will result in a future data center facility typology that is more complex and that will continue to evolve. By recognizing and monitoring these trends, it is possible to revise the inputs to the design process and anticipate emerging data center types.

Some significant recent observations that are likely to influence the future direction of data centers are highlighted here.


Emerging functional requirements include “cloud” computing, cryptocurrency, blockchain, artificial intelligence, mobile computing, the “Internet of Things” and “Big Data” applied to many fields, each of which could merit a separate in-depth discussion.


ICT Equipment continues to evolve. A move toward standardization supported by movements such as Open Compute exists alongside the contrasting tendency for special-purpose hardware. Entirely new categories of equipment, such as quantum computing devices, are also appearing. The envelope of acceptable environmental conditions in terms of power quality, temperature and humidity will be relaxed, driven primarily by major consumers in the pursuit of energy cost savings. 

In general, the quest for performance improvement through miniaturization continues to create more concentrated power input and corresponding heat removal requirements to which facility infrastructure systems must respond.


Operations staffing levels are experiencing downward pressure, primarily for financial considerations. At the same time, formation of qualified operations personnel is an ongoing challenge as the sheer numbers of data centers proliferate. Improvements to system and facility monitoring tools, and robotic automation of certain functions will undoubtedly continue.


Power and cooling systems will continue evolving to respond not only to the increasing density requirements of the ICT equipment, but also to changing externalities related to climate change, weather, regulation, renewable resources. Additionally, facility infrastructure may increasingly need to respond to business-related considerations such as providing users with variable redundancy, incremental expansion of capacity and speed of deployment.


In addition to the climate, weather and regulatory elements noted above, regulatory factors such as data sovereignty, political factors such as civil unrest or economic trade actions are occurring, which may dictate how physical security of the premises or utility services are maintained, or even where facilities are located on a global scale.


Major changes in how business is conducted by the entire range of data center users continue to impact the data center industry in defining ways. These include the movement away from dedicated enterprise data center operations to shared occupancies, third party developer/owner/operators, shared services, and polarization of data center size. In addition, a consolidation of industry players accompanied by increasingly sophisticated competition leading to a standardization of facility designs for greater manageability with less staff, commoditization of the facility design and construction process, and prefabrication or pre-assembly of infrastructure elements has also become viable options for data center operations within organizations.

The continued evolution of data centers is certain and necessary. Understanding the key drivers influencing their form, function and operation, and recognizing the trends influencing the drivers themselves, is essential in planning for the complex data center of the future.

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