As a society, we spent much of 2021 trying to find steadier footing and a sense of normalcy as we continued to live and work through a global pandemic that changed everything, possibly forever.

However, as we emerge from the pandemic, our experts expect data center decision-makers in 2022 to emphasize other existential threats affecting the world at large, particularly those related to sustainability and climate change.

Additionally, we anticipate the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) to ramp up next year as organizations look to utilize this technology for their growing digital transformation initiatives.

Below are some of the ways we expect these conversations, as well as several others, to evolve and intensify in the coming months.

The data center’s more purposeful approach to sustainability and climate change

As sustainability talk turns to action, Vertiv’s experts predict some organizations will embrace sustainable energy strategies that utilize a digital solution that matches energy use with 100 percent renewable energy and ultimately operates around the clock on sustainable energy.

Cloud providers have become more vocal on this front while announcing increasingly aggressive sustainability goals. Hybrid distributed energy systems can provide both AC and DC power, which adds options to improve efficiencies and eventually allows data centers to operate carbon-free.

For more sustainable, resilient, and reliable outcomes, fuel cells, renewable assets, and long-duration energy storage systems – including battery energy storage systems (BESS), lithium-ion batteries, and next-generation battery technologies beyond lithium-ion – will all play a vital role.

A major expansion of the lithium-ion recycling infrastructure in North America is on tap as multiple companies have secured significant public and private funding in the market. This will eliminate one of the few remaining barriers to the widespread adoption of lithium-ion batteries.

This new approach to sustainability also frees the data center operator from potential utility capacity bottlenecks and restrictions, and the drive to zero will not stop with carbon.

Thermal systems that use zero water are in demand, particularly in drought-affected areas, and we will see refrigerants with high global warming potential (GWP) phased out in favor of new equipment using low-GWP refrigerants.

Sustainability will be critical to addressing the climate crisis going forward, but data center and telecommunications operators will also take great steps to deal with near-term climate challenges.

Extreme weather events related to climate change will influence decisions around where and how to build new data centers and telecommunications networks. The United States just experienced its hottest summer on record, and in the first nine months of 2021, the country experienced 18 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events.

According to an Uptime Institute report, three in five respondents think there will be more IT service outages as a direct result of the impact of climate change, and nearly 90 percent think climate change will drive up the cost of data center infrastructure and operations over the next 10 years.

Other factors, including the reliability and affordability of the grid, regional temperatures, water availability, and regulations that ration utility power and limit the amount of power afforded to data centers, also play a part in the decision-making.

These extreme weather events will drive more robust infrastructure systems across the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) space which will need to be carefully aligned with sustainability goals.

In 2022, data center and telecom operators will wrestle with these issues – and ever-present latency questions – and will drive a need for solutions that can address all of these challenges.

Artificial intelligence (AI) gets real

As today’s networks get more complicated and virtual reality demands of the metaverse become more prominent, there will be an increased need for real-time computing and decision-making.

This real-time demand is sensitive to latencies, and under the increasingly common hybrid model of enterprise, public and private clouds, colocation, and Edge, full-time manual management is impractical, if not impossible. Therefore, AI and machine learning will be critical to optimizing the performance of these networks.

According to McKinsey’s Global Survey, ‘The state of AI in 2020, the wheels have already been set in motion, as 50 percent of the respondents said they have adopted AI in at least one of their business functions.

Additionally, in a Gartner poll, 47 percent of respondents said AI investments were unchanged from the start of the pandemic, and 30 percent of respondents planned to increase their investments in AI technology.

This transformation will take a great deal of time and effort. However, the programming tools have become simplified enough that data scientists can point computing resources at a problem without having to be experts in programming or hardware.

The availability of AI hardware from established vendors, cloud options for the same, a simplified toolchain, and an educational focus on data science has put AI in play for even smaller companies. This has all the makings for accelerated AI adoption in 2022.

As with every technological advancement, the increased adoption of AI is not without its growing pains.

The increase in AI will inevitably increase computing and heat densities at the rack and, by extension, accelerate the adoption of liquid cooling. Among other challenges: lowering the barrier to entry places a premium on choosing the right vendors, platforms, and systems to trust.

Focusing on the post-pandemic data center

In the data center, the post-pandemic rebound is already taking shape. Some 2.9 gigawatts worth of new construction is under way globally – up from 1.6 gigawatts in 2020.

These new data centers will be built to address the needs of this new normal, such as remote work, increased reliance on e-commerce and telehealth, video streaming, and the continued rollout of 5G.

Support for these changes will beget more focus at the Edge, where VMware projects a dramatic shift in workload distribution – from five percent currently to 30 percent over the next five years. Edge spending already is slated to reach $250.6 billion in 2024.

With the arrival of the post-pandemic data center, our experts expect availability to remain a top priority, even at the Edge, but lower latency will have increased value in the coming years to support major initiatives such as healthy buildings, smart cities, distributed energy resources, and the transition to 5G.

Innovations for more seamless integration

There is undoubtedly a great deal of emphasis on how data centers will impact the outside world, but there is also much chatter regarding improvements made within those four walls, particularly with integrated systems.

In 2022, we’ll likely see the next step in integration as data centers work with providers to better integrate larger systems, such as all the components of the power infrastructure, and deliver seamless interoperability.

Integration as a concept reduces construction and deployment costs and provides flexible capacity management. Applying the same approach across larger systems delivers speed to that list of benefits.

With a cautious optimism that 2022 will restore a sense of normalcy, we look forward to supporting data center operators and suppliers as they navigate these trends and challenges and implementing solutions that can make a real difference. To learn more about Vertiv’s 2022 Data Center Trends click here.