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Will data centre automation dispense with humans?

Posted by on May 16, 2016

If you happened to be walking or driving in the vicinity of Rotterdam’s docks area in early April, you may – perhaps unwittingly – have witnessed the arrival of an extraordinary group of twenty first century vehicles.

At first sight, there was nothing unusual. At around midday on April 6, half a dozen convoys of trucks pulled into the harbour after journeys from as far away as German and Sweden.  Manufactured by companies such as Volvo, Man, Iveco and Scania, they were largely indistinguishable from other vehicles on the road.

But they were, in fact, semi autonomous vehicles, taking part in a pioneering experiment that could ultimately lead to a revolution in the haulage industry. In future, Europe’s freight could be conveyed to its destination on vehicles guided by robotic system.

This is all part of a much bigger picture. Robotic vehicles of all kinds are being tested in the US and Europe, with the UK government among those funding research and development. Robotic truck “platooning” as seen in the Rotterdam experiment, will be happening in Britain as early as next year and the government has also announced plans for driverless car tests. 

The bigger picture

Away from the roads, robots and autonomous (or semi-autonomous) machines are set to make a bigger impact on all our lives over the next few years. If the predictions are correct, we’ll find robots in hospitals and care homes (delivering medicines and food to patients) and household chore bots in our homes. We’ll also see them in a range of workplaces, from warehouses to factories.

This will represent a major change. The first generation of industrial robots – and they’re familiar to most of us – were installed on production lines and designed to carry out repetitive tasks at high speeds. Today we’re seeing increased investment in robots that move around workspaces. Witness Amazon’s $775m acquisition of Kiva, a maker of robots designed to move goods around warehouses much more efficiently than their human counterparts. The acquisition of the company will enable Amazon to create a better and faster fulfilment operation.

And we are also seeing smarter robots. The importance of artificial intelligence has been underlined by Google’s acquisition of UK Artificial Intelligence company Deepmind, which this year hit the headlines when its system successfully defeated a human champion in the notoriously complex game of Go. Because of the enormous number of possible moves, Deepmind’s developers couldn’t simply programme the system as they would a chess computer. To win, Deepmind had to learn as it played and make decisions based on that learning.

This combination of mobility intelligence will have a huge impact on the workplace. 

 Robots in the data centre

And, of course, the likelihood is robotics will also have a significant impact on the way that data centres are managed.  

The key is in the development of smart, intelligent systems that have the capacity to detect and respond to events in unpredictable environments. To return to driverless cars for a moment, it’s not enough that they can navigate along a pre-designated route. They must also be able to respond to a cyclist swerving out unexpectedly or a driver in another vehicle jumping a red light. 

In the data centre, the development of smart machines holds out the possibility that facilities can, to a much greater degree, be managed by semi-autonomous software and/or hardware systems, again with the ability to respond to events.

It’s happening already. For instance, with the right tools in place, a system can monitor usage of a software application and if there are too many connections, automatically bring an additional instance of the app into play. Similarly, a system could configure additional virtual servers when those already in operation are over utilised. 

Smart systems can also be used to monitor and regulate the physical environment within data centres. For instance, IBM has developed a robot that can be deployed within facilities to monitor temperatures. 

Smart and in some cases, autonomous technology is vital if data centre operators are to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of their facilities.  Put simply by putting solutions in place that regulate aspects of the environment – such as heat and humidity – or allow systems to be automatically repaired or reconfigured, data centre operators will be able to provide a better and more cost-effective service to customers.  

In the dark

But will we ever see a ‘dark’ data centre in which bots not only monitor, regulate and in some cases repair systems but also replace servers or cabling with no people around to make decisions.

The answer in the short term is no. Hardware and software machines are already vital tools in the maintenance of data centres, but as the technology stands we do not have robots that can make important judgement calls on behalf of a customer. Nor do we have robots that can create bespoke solutions or think outside of the box to come up with new and innovative service offerings. More fundamentally, we still need people to carry out most physical repairs and maintenance.

Robotics and autonomous systems will undoubtedly play an increasing role, but in the foreseeable future, we don’t expect to see the driverless data centre.

Written by Jason O’Conaill @aokcloud 

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