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The next generation of workers: How robots are reshaping data centre operations

by uma


By Paul Lewis, Senior Operations Director, Telehouse

Over the past decade, the data centre industry has seen rapid growth and robust progress driven by a rise in data generation, cloud adoption, new technologies, and broader digital transformation. As customer demands for storage and cloud service increase, so does the worldwide investment in the data centre infrastructure, which has already more than doubled in the last year. This shows no signs of slowing down, with the heightening customer expectations putting immense pressure on operators to ensure the smooth and efficient running of operations 24/7.

It is by no means an easy task as modern data centres are becoming more complex, comprising more components, all of which require an unparalleled level of visibility and real-time monitoring to prevent failure and potentially damaging downtime. With more equipment in a facility for on-site personnel to look after, the task of ensuring operational efficiency and maintaining SLAs in place with tenants is more challenging than ever before. 

As such, data centres have started to slowly move away from their high reliance on manual operations and instead, are paving the way for more automation and intelligent decision-making. Already modern data centre infrastructure management systems take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to bridge the gap between facilities and IT departments and support engineers in predictive maintenance and reducing operational costs. The time, however, has come to also explore the new frontier in data centre operations – robots. 

A single source of truth

The successful day-to-day running of the data centre relies heavily on data management systems working together to provide a thorough overview of the entire ecosystem. Without the seamless communication between security, IT and facilities, faults and safety hazards may not be flagged early enough to rectify them in a timely manner.

To ensure a more proactive approach, data centres need a single source of truth – a centralised reference point that provides the visibility needed to identify and respond to potential operating problems in real time. This federated view is essential for timely and proactive problem-solving. It allows for obstructions to be removed with minimal disruption, and for equipment to be quickly replenished at the opportune time.

While current control systems and on-site personnel carry out regular checks on facilities to ensure there are no potential hazards, technology can streamline and support these efforts, combining human expertise with automated precision and speed to achieve new heights of efficiency. 

Here’s where robotics comes in – to provide the necessary ‘single source of truth’ and ensure greater visibility while streamlining and transforming complex data centre processes. From automating mundane manual tasks to driving greater efficiencies and faster response and resolution times, the technology complements human skill by removing the burden of low-level tasks from teams. This, in turn, allows for new heights of productivity and efficiency to be reached, as greater attention can be given to more skilled and strategic activities. 

For example, a single robot can obtain 4k, in-depth, and 360-degree visibility across all data centre areas. With these capabilities, the machine can diligently resolve issues while communicating any irregularities back to teams for immediate escalation. Therefore, by acting as a ‘one for all’ for enhancing functionality across the ecosystem, the robot can also strengthen the security and compliance of all data centre operations. 

In addition, robotics can swiftly identify multiple unrelated safety hazards, flagging issues that may not be immediately obvious. For instance, an engineer may notice a missing fire extinguisher in one corridor and take steps to resolve the issue but may not necessarily notice an obstruction in an adjacent room. A single robot can carry out the most extensive manual checks in a short period of time, whilst simultaneously communicating data insights around security, facility, and environmental health across multiple departments.  

A map of the data centre

Using self-driving technology, a robot autonomously maps and navigates the data centre to provide real-time sensor data. It can then monitor key metrics, establishing norms and immediately escalating any anomalies for human analysis. With no risk of distraction or bias, robotics offers visibility, speed, and multi-layered intelligence far beyond the capability of a single human or static camera.

AI-driven sensors and live visualisations of energy dynamics, such as heat mapping, have the power to accurately detect anything from temperature and Wi-Fi signal strength to air quality index, smoke, and gas levels inside the data centre. The real-time data insights provided by this technology then allow staff to be proactive in dealing with any issues that may affect operational efficiency or customer satisfaction. 

With 24% of unplanned outages to data centres caused by weather, water, heat, or computer room air conditioning (CRAC) failure, robotics are proving incredibly useful to respond to alarms and other security devices, providing a validation of any condition to a specific area or rack. This ultimately results in fewer humans being deployed, as a technician would only be required to attend if there is an issue or confirmation of the problem by the robot. Therefore, these capabilities offer an extra layer of accuracy and security, whilst also balancing workloads and costs throughout the data centre.

A human-robot synergy

There are often mixed emotions arising when talking about humans and robots working together. Unfortunately, the daily news can perpetuate common concerns that machines will one day replace people, leaving many worried about their careers and future. However, at this point, it is key to highlight that robotics, or any other newer technology, is there to work alongside humans and relieve them of time-consuming, manual tasks. 

It might be that we’re also coming to the realization that robots are simply taking jobs that people should not have had to do in the first place. We should see it as an opportunity to upskill personnel in more strategic areas, leaving repetitive aspects of data centre work to technology. Combining the speed and precision of robots with human intelligence and adaptability can shape the exact operational excellence that data centre customers have come to demand. 

The synergy of man and machine will prove critical in the near future as data volumes will only continue to expand and put further pressure on data centre operators to streamline processes in more complex, dynamic environments. As the transformation and developments in robotics continue, the data centre industry needs to figure out how to complement human strengths with robotic speed and start looking forward to even higher levels of visibility and efficiency. 

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