Digital Infrastructure

A sector you’ve probably never heard of is now supporting the way of life you never saw coming…

We’re certainly living in interesting times. A month ago, who would have thought that the world would be in lock-down, that our travel would be restricted and even family social activities curtailed. Working from home, once the preserve of the self-employed, working parents or those who enjoyed workplace flexibility is now, for many, not a question of choice. If you can work from home it’s expected that you do so.

Self-isolation has forced many to work, communicate and interact differently. Instead of face to face meetings, we’re assembling online. Medical advice is delivered outside of the doctor’s surgery as patients are diagnosed via web enabled apps and websites. Schools and universities have quickly turned over their face to face learning to widespread online delivery. Fitness, yoga and music classes are being attended not in the studio with others but online by ourselves and a remote teacher.

While we’ve been shopping, banking, gaming and communicating online for many years, the digital infrastructure sector is now emerging as the glue that holds the remnants of our modern life from falling apart completely. Indeed, the selfless, live-saving work being undertaken by critical services such as health care and medical research (thank you, thank you) is supported by digital infrastructure. Law enforcement, food logistics, defence and power supplies (thank you all too) all rely on digital infrastructure.

Never heard of the Digital Infrastructure sector?

You’re not alone…

It is one of the most important industries in the world and yet it’s largely invisible; unknown to most and out of mind until it’s not working as it should.

So what is it?

To put it simply, digital infrastructure is where the internet lives and how it all works together on a global basis.  Think of it as the high-tech offspring of information technology, communications, engineering and facilities management. It is the invisible structure that connects you to your bank, your workplace, your online shopping providers, your television subscription, your phone and all the apps you use on it.

Digital infrastructure allows you to order your Uber, your Dominos, your Amazon Prime shopping. It supports the NHS to manage your medical records and it allows coordinated traffic management. It supports emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Digital infrastructure is with us from the moment we get up in the morning to the point at which we go to bed at night, and it continues to work in the world invisibly supporting governments, businesses, charities and individuals across the world.

Without digital infrastructure, your life would be very, very different and now that the world has been turned upside down, we need it more than ever.

“But doesn’t all that stuff work in the ‘cloud’?”

Well, yes. But unlike the big fluffy stuff that exists in the sky, put simply, the ‘cloud’ is actually a collective of buildings called data centres. They’re filled with high tech servers and other components such as data storage and communications equipment.

There are different ways of operating data centres, but essentially they’re very high-security facilities that can be thought of as the ‘brains’ of the internet and operate 24/7 every day of the year. ‘Uptime’, or the continuous operation of the data centre is absolutely critical. After all, you need to have access to banking, telecoms, navigation, work applications and any internet supported services such as home security, sat navs and digital payments at the time you’re in need of those services.

“I’ve never heard of digital infrastructure, it must be a niche sector…”

Erm, actually no. It’s massive. It’s global. It’s growing – fast. New construction of data centres was due to hit around US$75 billion by 2021 prior to the current COVID-19 outbreak and in 2018 average monthly acquisitions topped US$1.88bn. It’s going to be interesting to see how revenues are impacted by the huge increase in traffic brought about by use of online services to facilitate the move to home working and other internet enabled activity. Records are already being broken. For example, the DE-CIX (the Deutsche Commercial Internet Exchange) in Frankfurt reported a new record for data throughput at 9.1 Terabits, breaking its December 2019 8 Terabits-per-second record (that’s A LOT!).

“So, who works in a data centre?”

Data centres are filled with highly skilled people who work to ensure that infrastructure and services are resilient. That means they need to be reliable and operational all the time with the ability to recover instantaneously if something goes wrong. To make this work, data centres employ mechanical, electrical and structural engineers for example. There are people who manage the cooling systems and power supplies. Project managers, data analysts and software engineers all work in data centres. The scope and scale of the workforce from construction to operation is vast and includes technical, security and general business occupations, too.

However, given that very few people actually know what a data centre is or how important digital infrastructure is to our way of life (particularly now!) the digital infrastructure sector as a whole is currently facing crippling skills and labour shortages. That is, organisations working in the sector have been reporting difficulties in finding and keeping skilled people to take up roles despite the sector being one of the most progressive and well-paying industries to be in.

If you’re looking for a well-paying, challenging and potentially global role, take a look at careers in the digital infrastructure sector; at a critical time like this, we need all hands on deck to ‘keep the lights on.’

“I don’t know any organisations in the digital infrastructure sector… or do I?”

Well, yes. If you’ve ever bought from Amazon, used Google maps, connected on Facebook or used Microsoft products you’ll have come into contact with some of the biggest players in the digital infrastructure space. If you’ve ever used Zoom for meetings or Moodle for learning or OneDrive for work, you’ve engaged with digital infrastructure. You get the idea…

There are many, many others both big and small, and given that the sector was born global, data centres exist across the world.

…your very way of life is going to depend on the operations and resilience of this sector…

So there you go. The digital infrastructure sector is one of the biggest, most important and fast moving sectors you’ve never heard of. However, it’s likely that your very way of life is going to depend on the operations and resilience of this sector as we go into a period of unprecedented isolation. From work to leisure, from emergency services and public order to online gaming and instant messaging, we’re all relying on the digital infrastructure sector in one way or another.

Dr Terri Simpkin

 

Dr Terri Simpkin is a Trustee of Baker Dearing Educational Trust. You can view her original blog on LinkedIn. Graphics by Taylor Crisdale and the team at Some Kid