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Modernized digital infrastructure: Preparing for the next generation of disruptive tech

REjournals Article by Craig Huffman

“Disruptive technology” is more than just a buzzword or industry catchphrase. It is a phrase to describe technological innovations that create entirely new markets and industries or fundamentally alter existing ones, displacing earlier technologies. Truly disruptive tech typically offers a solution for more affordable or simplified processes across a wide range of applications or provides alternative products/services that make things more accessible to the larger population. Beyond the marketing “speak,” disruptive technology, such as AI applications, aren’t just something novel and exciting—they truly are “disrupting” how we interact with the world around us.

AI’s disruption has been fast and furious while just getting underway with the general population via generative AI applications, and their enablement comes with an entirely new set of requirements. The stark reality is that most existing commercial real estate properties do not have the foundational architecture necessary to meet the demands of today’s technologies—so it’s time to modernize our approach. Everything from design, location, and community impact should be considered, as everything makes a difference. And as the people who design, build, manage, and broker commercial properties, it’s our job to ensure that the real estate market is ready to meet the growing demands of modern technology.

A New World of Innovation
Nearly every modern industry is undergoing a massive disruption to its traditional processes in the wake of AI expansion, and many organizations are beginning to adopt powerful tools and applications powered by AI software to enhance operations and create space for greater innovation. In particular, the healthcare and biotech industries have arguably experienced one of the most significant upheavals to their status quo, as recent events and medical breakthroughs have created a significant need for AI applications that enable and enhance new and existing processes and services.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic brought forth a new demand for sophisticated telemedicine services within the healthcare services industry, creating a need for enhanced privacy, closed systems, secure data sharing, and more robust cybersecurity systems. In addition, medical research facilities and biotech incubators received significant investments toward developing and manufacturing vaccines and treatments. This sudden expansion opened the door for continued growth within these industries, ultimately generating an urgent need for AI applications that will enable the necessary operational functions to support forthcoming advancements.

However, the technology itself simply cannot be powered and distributed effectively using existing digital infrastructure. And so, it’s time to rethink our approach to the architectural design and development of digital properties in an effort to expand their capability to support disruptive technologies.

A New Kind of Digital Infrastructure
We are now beginning to understand what it means to reshape the digital landscape to support AI applications and other burgeoning technological developments. This digital evolution has ushered in a new age of data center design.

AI technology requires a tremendous amount of compute processing, as its models and algorithms often rely on powerful processors and specialized hardware accelerators to enable their functionality. This increase in computational power will require better access to reliable power to sustain these massive workloads. When it comes to powering AI, facilities will also need to be equipped to transfer data in petabytes fed to parallel (or multiple) neural-net processors for near real-time responsiveness.  As AI technology evolves, the computational demands will increase dramatically, not just in terms of raw processing power but also in data storage and energy consumption. Therefore, to stay relevant, facilities must be prepared to scale significantly, which entails adaptable growth in the essential infrastructure components. 

As a result, the foundational elements of today’s data center facilities, the buildings themselves, need to be designed specifically with high compute capacity, scalability, and power requirements in mind. This includes access to multiple redundant power sources as well as high-capacity floor loads capable of supporting liquids, heavy machinery, and other large-capacity requirements. These needs are better met within vertical architecture, so fortifying traditional buildings may not be enough—greenfield industrial buildings are necessary to support the massive floor loads and power that AI requires.

The growing demand for high-capacity data centers brings with it an urgent need for environmental responsibility. Innovative solutions like renewable energy integration, waste heat recovery, and advanced cooling systems are becoming essential features of next-generation facilities. These sustainable practices not only reduce environmental impact but also offer long-term cost-efficiency. It’s a crucial step toward building digital infrastructure that is both powerful and sustainable. 

Powering Innovation by Empowering Communities
Another pillar of digital infrastructure modernization is the careful selection of location for new data center developments, and our eyes are turned to underutilized urban communities. By deploying digital infrastructure in dense, urban areas, facilities automatically have greater proximity to reliable power sources and end-users, while simultaneously gaining access to a sea of untapped workforce potential.

For the purposes of illustration: our flagship facility, the IMD1 data center, is situated right in the heart of Chicago—the fifth most densely populated city in the United States with a wide-ranging workforce. And while its physical location provides us with direct access to a robust fiber optic network and high energy supply, the social impact of digital infrastructure deployment was also a top priority to the facility’s architectural design and proximity to power and connectivity. Moving forward, choosing to construct digital infrastructure in other urban environments like Chicago will serve as a significant driver of consistent economic growth and, when done intentionally, will foster the next generation of a diverse, skilled workforce within the tech industry. The data center industry is facing a severe labor shortage, and much of the workforce is reaching retirement age. With careful planning, these new builds can create an entirely new labor pipeline that will not only address this shortfall but support members of the surrounding community.

Consider Yourself Disrupted
While the future of modernized digital infrastructure has been teased for many years, that change is now upon us. It’s time to embrace a new approach to technology-based real estate. In doing so, together we can welcome this new era of digital innovation in a thoughtful way that simultaneously supports the growth of new technologies while enhancing the lives of the very people that use it.

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