Smart Cities are Coming, and They’ll Need Data Centers

Data Center Frontier

July 23, 2018

Rich Miller

The street light may not look like technology. But many technologists believe the humble street light will illuminate the future of smart cities.

These new smart street lights come equipped with energy-efficient LED bulbs, which last longer and use less power than traditional street lights. But there’s more: these light poles can also include built-in wireless connectivity (Bluetooth and wifi), high-definition digital cameras, and sensors to monitor weather and air quality. Most smart street lights come with a control network that can connect a city-wide array of sensors, and analytics packages.

“The real killer app for smart cities is smart street lighting,” said Sean Tippett, the Director of Smart Cities and IoT at Silver Spring Networks, which specializes in Internet of Things (IoT) solutions for business. “It pays for itself, and then you have an IoT network in place.”

Smart street lights are the leading edge of an ambitious vision for smart cities, with the IoT bringing intelligence to everything from trash cans to park benches to dedicated ad-supported wifi kiosks like the LinkNYC or CIVIQ SmartScapes. The goal is to allow cities to use sensors and data analysis to bring intelligence to urban environments, and improve the quality of life for residents.

“A smart city harnesses the power of its data to run more efficiently,” said Melvin Greer, Chief Data Scientist at Intel Corp. “Every company and every city is now data-centric.”

It’s a vision that will arrive slowly, and in phases. The first phase involves deploying networks of sensors to collect data.

The trajectory of smart cities has been further transformed by the rise of autonomous vehicles, which have the potential to bring transformational changes in how cities are designed and function. Futurists and smart cities advocates foresee a future in which self-driving cars communicate with one another and the infrastructure around them. Imagine an urban landscape in which cars communicate with streetlights to improve traffic flow, and use sensors to locate empty parking spaces – and naturally, park themselves.

The realization of data flowing from vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) could be decades away. But it underscores the disruptive potential of combining the Internet of Things and autonomous cars.

A New Role for Data Centers

Smart cities are a key component of our digital future, bringing together the Internet of Things, BigData, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars to change the way we live and do business in major urban centers.

Data centers will be major beneficiaries of the emergence of smart cities, which will require lots of connectivity, data storage and compute power for analytics to crunch all that data. How big is this opportunity, and when will it arrive?

To answer these questions, Data Center Frontier has spent the past 18  months speaking with leading technologists, vendors and public officials to understand how the evolution of smart cities may change the data center landscape. We’ve attended conferences like the Industry of Things World and Internet of Things World, along with data center industry events.

The bottom line: True smart cities will arrive slowly, and face challenges in gaining funding and political support. But early adopters are already deploying networks of sensors and devices to lay the groundwork for more ambitious smart infrastructure ahead.

“Data centers that support smart cities can’t be designed on power and real estate concerns,” said Intel’s Greer. “They’ll be designed in a much smaller footprint and focused on a much more concentrated series of concerns. In the smart cities of the future, the data will be more important than the center.”

Beyond the Hype: Making Smart Cities Real

The smart city is an urban development that integrated information technology and the Internet of things (IoT) into the fabric of city life, using analytics and sensors to better manage cities and make urban ife safer, more efficient and sustainable. It’s just one more expression of how next-generation technologies are remaking the American landscape.

As with most new technologies, the smart cities movement has generated excitement about the possibilities.

“People want their pizza delivered in two minutes, by a drone” said Lou Lutostanski, Vice President for Internet of Things at Avnet. “Technology is no longer a limiter. Our imagination is the only limitation.”

But it’s easier to imagine technology than build it and pay for it. So it will be with smart cities, which will emerge gradually.

“I think we’re at approximately the peak of the hype cycle,” said Sharelynn Moore, VP of Global Marketing at Itron, as leading vendor in the IoT and smart cities sector. “But there is real business to be had here. There’s a lot of really amazing things coming. The cost and power of the technology has come down enough to make it work.

“If you get the infrastructure overlay, these applications will appear,” Moore added. “There are on-ramps that can get you started. But we are just getting started on innovation.”

Silver Spring’s Tippett says smart city strategies will serve as an economic development tool.

“We see very progressive, forward-looking cities seeing this as an innovation point and a differentiator, using early investments to attract developers and businesses,” said Tippett.

Leading With Lighting

A lot of those early investments are in smart lighting projects, which can piggyback on a larger trend to convert legacy streetlights to LED to reduce energy costs.

“We do a lot of work in the connected lighting sector, and we’re seeing it continue to grow,” said Tippett, who sees an opportunity in providing monitoring and management to cities, which often don’t want to do it themselves. As connected things proliferate, it’s not a small job.

Early projects have been promising. In 2014, San Diego installed a network of 3,000 smart streetlights from GE, which is now saving the city about $250,000 annually in electricity and maintenance costs (since outages are reported electronically, allowing targeted truck rolls for repairs during daylight hours).

Other cities are beginning to install these systems at scale. Officials in Edinburgh, Scotland are deploying a network of 64,000 smart street lights from Telensa, complete with wireless nodes.

“If all of our vision for the IoT comes to pass, there will be a lot of devices out there, and scalability becomes important,” said Tippett. “There needs to be a very strong emphasis on security. The technology provider has a responsibility to ensure that the solution is secure and can scale.”

Clearing the Confusion on the Tech & the Opportunity

The expo hall at Internet of Things World stretches across much of the Santa Clara Convention Center. As you walk past booth after booth of connected things, it’s a dazzling array of IoT tech. Some of it is super cool, while some leaves you scratching your head.

“We’re really trying to grapple with all this,” said Jon Walton, CIO of San Mateo County. “So much of the stuff we see on the expo floor is so new. We don’t know what’s really going to be around. The IoT is actually far ahead of where government wants to engage.”

On a panel of municipal officials, Walton said that learning curve is a challenge for cities seeking to evangelize a smart cities strategy.

“You need executive sponsorship and strong leaders,” said Walton. “You have to make IoT tangible. IT in government has always been seen as an expense. The conversation we’re having now is ‘are some of these a service?’ If we’re not going to try to monetize IoT, maybe we focus on providing a benefit, rather than advertising or business models.”

Walton and San Mateo County have developed a “Smart Region Model” to focus on agencies working together to use shared technology resources to solve regional problems. The concept brings together smart parking solutions, smart street lights, waste management, energy management and asset tracking.

Finding the Funding, and the Business Model

In an era of tight budgets for cities and counties, a key question is how governments will fund their investment in smart city initiatives.

“What’s the ROI (return on investment) on public wifi versus affordable housing?” Walton said. The key selling point will initially be financial efficiency – finding better and cheaper ways to provide services. Some IOT driven services may provide opportunities for monetization through public-private partnerships (PPPs) that offer a public benefit while providing a financial incentive for the business partner.

One option is creating wired innovation districts that can attract startups and other connected businesses. Many early monetization strategies focus on the sale or exchange of data gathered through sensor networks, which raises privacy questions.

Dave Tolson of DBT Data has a unique perspective on the smart cities discussion. For many years, Tolson built upscale housing in urban markets, before shifting his focus to data center development. Building truly smart cities will require serious investment in infrastructure, Tolson said, which is not an area where government has a strong track record – with the exception of cities preparing for the Olympics or Super Bowls.

“At the federal, state and local level, there’s not enough money to update infrastructure,” said Tolson. “The return would be phenomenal. It’s intelligent and profitable to do. But where is the money going to come from? It can’t come completely from the private sector.

“I’m a little skeptical,” he said. “The opportunity is currently very limited.”

The Evolving Role of the Data Center

What does this mean for data center economics? A number of developers and service providers are positioning themselves to benefit from demand for urban IT infrastructure. Smart cities are a particular flavor of edge computing, with the accompanying focus on right sizing the data center form factor.

When it comes to data center infrastructure, smart cities will mix the old and the new, creating opportunities for traditional “core” connectivity hubs as well as smaller data centers  optimized for edge computing.

Multi-tenant carrier hotels have been cornerstones of the Internet economy since the 1990s, and are some of the most successful properties in the colocation industry. Typically located in the central business district of major cities, buildings like One Wilshire and 60 Hudson Street and the Infomart, these buildings house meet-me rooms, a common area where providers can make connections between their networks.

Executives at Netrality, which owns carrier hotels in five U.S. markets, say its facilities are positioned to benefit as smart city technologies are deployed.

“All these applications are highly-dependent on low-latency connectivity,” said Gerald Marshall, President and CEO of Netrality. We’re starting to see the infrastructure to support these initiatives in our properties.”

At the other end of the spectrum are micro data centers that will help deploy infrastructure for 5G wireless connectivity and low-latency applications.

Edge computing specialist Vapor IO has begun deploying high-density, “lights-out” data center modules  in downtown Chicago, including a test site that serves as a launchpad for drone startup Hangar.  In an early example of infrastructure for a robot-powered smart city, the two companies are creating an edge computing network to manage drones as they fly missions to collect and analyze oceans of business data.

The companies see the collaboration as the first step towards a larger network to manage an automated society. Hangar’s real-time tracking system is currently focused on drones, but can also be used to support autonomous cars.

Intel’s Greer said data center modules are part of an exploding ecosystem of devices and vehicles that will comprise the smart cities to come.

“Smart cities is going to disrupt this idea of the huge, monolithic data center,” said Greer. ” The iPhone X isn’t a smartphone. It’s an artificial intelligence device. The (car) key is a sensor. It knows when you are in proximity to your vehicle. This is the future.”