Data is everywhere, and there will be even more tomorrow. But that data won’t be evenly distributed, and where it flows and resides will define the contours of the digital economy of the 21st century.

Digital Realty believes data center geography will be guided by massive aggregation points for data, which create “data gravity” that attracts applications and services, and the infrastructure to them. The company is investing in research to identify these future data hubs and provide the data centers and connectivity to support them.

The result is the Data Gravity Index (DGI), which was unveiled this week and predicts that data growth will surge through 2024, bringing data stewardship to the fore for global enterprises.

“Software isn’t eating the world anymore; data is eating the world, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” said Dave McCrory, who first identified the data gravity trend and recently joined Digital Realty as Vice President of Growth.

Location, Location, Location

Location defines the data center industry, guided by where customers want their IT equipment and data to reside. With the DGI, Digital Realty is seeking to follow the data to create a roadmap for growth. It suggests that the data itself will have a larger voice in the future placement of digital infrastructure.

The Digital Realty research predicts that major global financial capitals will continue to be the focal point for data gravity, only at a much larger scale. The largest data stores will be found in London, Tokyo, New York, Paris, Beijing and Silicon Valley. But the fastest data growth will occur in six cities positioned to boost their profile as data powerhouses – Singapore, Hong Kong, Dallas, Sydney, Seattle, and Tokyo.

The study reinforces the economic importance of the world’s largest cities, even as the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting many to reassess urban centers as residential and commercial hubs. The massive shift to a work-from-home economy has raised questions about the future health of downtown office markets, while social distancing is testing the residential appeal of subways and crowded restaurants.

But the nature of data gravity is that it makes data hard to move, and the DGI data predicts that the critical mass of data already residing in financial capitals will be a powerful magnet for future  data growth.

Trends in data gravity also provide opportunities for data center developers, urban planners and economic development agencies. But first, let’s take a deeper look at the concept of data gravity.

Why Customers Should Care About Data Gravity

Massive data growth is a happy trend for data center operators like Digital Realty. But the company believes it’s a crucial time to start a conversation about data gravity.

“Most enterprises and service providers are just at the beginning stages of understanding data gravity’s potential impact on their innovation, customer experience, and profitability, but they need to be designing for it now,” said Digital Realty Chief Technology Officer Chris Sharp. “The study is designed to give CIOs, chief architects, and infrastructure leaders insight into the phenomena causing architecture constraints as well as a blueprint for addressing them.”

McCrory coined the term “data gravity” in 2010 while he was at Dell. He was intrigued by how data movement and collection might impact the network.

“The answer begins with viewing data as a planet or an object with sufficient mass,” McCrory noted on the Digital Realty blog. “As data builds mass, it will likely attract additional services and applications. This is the same effect gravity has on objects around a planet.”

McCrory’s DGI study projects that the intensity of data gravity will experience a 139 percent annual growth rate through 2024, the current horizon for the research.

“Data is growing at an accelerating rate due to the growth of IoT, AI and social mobile analytics,” said Tony Bishop, the SVP, Platform, Growth and Marketing at Digital Realty. “There’s a good story to tell here. But there’s another side to the story, too, with growth resulting in the compounding force of data gravity.

“Data gravity is the biggest challenge facing all companies,” said Bishop. “Unchecked, data gravity can lead to limited innovation, poor customer and employee experiences, increased costs, information silos, compliance issues, security concerns and slow decision-making for the enterprise.”

Aon plc, a London-based global professional services firm specializing in financial risk-mitigation, believes that data gravity is a megatrend that will present significant challenges for global businesses.

“Understanding data gravity and its impact on our IT infrastructure is a difference-maker for our operations and will only become more important as data continues to serve as the currency of the digital economy,” said Munu Gandhi, Aon’s VP of Core Infrastructure Services. “As enterprises become more data-intensive, there’s a compounding effect on business points of presence, regulatory oversight and increased complexity for compliance and data privacy that IT leaders are now being forced to solve.”

What’s in the Formula?

The Data Gravity Index methodology is based on the analysis of thousands of attributes of Global 2000 enterprise companies’ presences in each metro, including GDP, population, number of employees, technographics, IT spend, average bandwidth and latency, as well as flows of data. Digital Realty conducted its research between August 2019 and August 2020 and drew upon more than a dozen third-party data sources, ranging from the World Economic Forum and United Nations to global consulting and market research firms.

Key findings include:

  • Enterprises are creating incredible volumes of data. The Forbes Global 2000 enterprises across the 21 metros analyzed are projected to create data at a rate of 1.1 million gigabytes per second by 2024, will be required to add 8.96 exaFLOPS to process new digital workflows, and are expected to increase data storage needs by 15,635 exabytes annually.
  • Data location will become exponentially more important to global enterprises as they endeavor to meet compliance requirements by maintaining local copies of critical data.
  • Data Gravity Intensity is accelerating across all regions. Data Gravity, as measured in gigabytes per second, is expected to more than double annually across the EMEA, APAC and North America regions through 2024.

How Data Gravity Will Guide Investment

How might the Data Gravity Index guide Digital Realty? An obvious connection can be seen in the study’s projections of robust future growth for Seattle and the investment activity of Digital Realty. which in February bought a majority interest in the Westin Building, the Seattle carrier hotel that is the primary interconnection hub in the Pacific Northwest.  The deal gives Digital Realty greater control over the property, including the ability to deploy space and services for its own colocation and interconnection businesses, a key goal of the company’s PlatformDIGITAL initiative launched in November.

Study: Data Gravity Will Guide the Global Digital Economy 6

The Westin Building Exchange (center) in Downtown Seattle. (Photo: Digital Realty)

Downtown Seattle also illustrates how the DGI might help guide sustainable development initiatives. The Westin Building uses waste heat from servers in the building’s data centers to heat an adjacent office building for Amazon. Waste heat recycling is a strategy that requires intention and planning. And therein lies an opportunity.

Cities that are likely to see huge data growth can expect more data center projects. This could allow economic development agencies to craft incentive policies to create data center districts, with local power infrastructure optimized for mission-critical operations, and district heating systems that can use the dense concentration of servers to heat nearby homes and offices. It’s a strategy that creates a virtuous cycle of energy use and reuse.

The point of the Digital Realty clearly study is to begin planning for a future shaped by data.

“The Data Gravity Index posits that to defy data gravity, organizations must design their infrastructure and networks in a more data-centric fashion, inverting traffic flow and bringing users, networks and clouds to privately hosted enterprise data,” said Digital Realty CEO William Stein. “The location of enterprise data should be a strategic decision – and a connected community approach is needed to decide where to put it and how to connect it at global points of business presence.”

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