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The aha about the internet of things: Is your data center ready?

It’s somewhat misleading to say technology advancements are enabling more and more internet-connected smart devices — or “things” — to get to market. Few of these connected devices are truly smart in the sense that your mobile phone or tablet could be called smart. Those tools are indeed mini-computers containing a processor and storage, embedded software and internet connectivity.

By far the majority of IoT devices are, and will be, “dumb.” They will connect to the internet, but their intelligence is in the cloud. The device will permit a measure of interactivity, and then transmit that prompt to a data center, which will respond with the appropriate task and feature.

Consider a home automation gadget like a “smart” light bulb. The bulb records your voice command or reads the command from its companion app, sends that command to the cloud and waits for its instruction to turn on or off. Since this happens near-instantly, the route is somewhat obscured. Even Amazon’s Echo is a dumb listening device that sends signals to the cloud and then streams the music or weather report you requested, combined with Alexa’s simple machine learning or AI technology to perform new capabilities.

It is simply not cost-effective nor practical to build these things with their own intelligence, and consumers will not bear the high price. (If each of those light bulbs cost the equivalent of an iPhone, few could afford to install them in each chandelier.)

As IoT becomes ubiquitous — here’s the aha — we must recognize that devices by and large are not gaining intelligence; rather, it is cloud data centers that are being tasked with delivering more and more intelligence. The devices themselves stay fairly dumb.

The number of internet-connected devices is projected to surpass 20 billion by 2020, with some analysts saying we will reach that number this year alone. This enormous explosion in internet-connected things will need to be matched by a corresponding explosion of processing power and storage in worldwide data centers. This is simply not sustainable.

If there are currently 10 billion internet-connected devices, even doubling that to get to a conservative estimate of 20 billion will require a significantly increased data center infrastructure. The capital costs of that infrastructure, the expanding real estate footprint and not to mention twice the electricity and resources to power it is frankly alarming. Last year, the world’s data centers consumed more energy in a year than the entire United Kingdom, and this consumption already doubles every four years, despite a smattering of hardware improvements that permit greater capacity and performance.

Supporting a mushrooming landscape of IoT devices will require radical improvements in data center efficiency. Piecemeal advances won’t do, particularly considering power consumption and costs of infrastructure proliferation. We need 10 – 20x improvements in processing power and densities.

Those of you in Europe are encouraged to join me at GLOBSEC Future 2017 Forum, May 26 – 28 in Bratislava, Slovakia, to discuss sustainable approaches to solving the problems we face in global data centers. I look forward to bringing home more information on IoT trends and innovations impacting not only the business environment, but the way economies and societies work.

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