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May 16, 2023updated 17 May 2023 8:37am

Quantum computers: coming to a data centre near you?

Operators are starting to install quantum hardware in their server farms, but widespread adoption remains some way off.

By Ryan Morrison

Quantum software company QCWare is rolling out a hybrid platform with quantum emulators, quantum computer and classical supercomputers running together at a new data centre in Germany. It is the latest in a line of similar projects looking to embed quantum machines in data centre infrastructure, but deployments remain at an early stage, industry insiders say.

Despite a number of high-profile announcements, including Equinix bringing a machine by Oxford Quantum Circuits into its Tokyo IBX Data Centre, and IBM expanding its Quantum Cloud, the quantum computing industry is still in its relative infancy.

Data Centre owners are cautious when it comes to new technology, one analyst told Tech Monitor (Photo: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)
Data Centre owners are cautious when it comes to new technology, one analyst told Tech Monitor. (Photo: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

Quantum computers are slowly increasing in performance, with higher numbers of qubits and greater coherence, but remain error-prone and noisy. This makes it harder to accurately process information. Fault-tolerant machines are on the horizon, and with new developments in topological qubits, as well as improved error corrections, some experts predict we will see quantum advantage, the point at which quantum machines can outperform their classical counterparts, within the next three to five years. Others are less optimistic, and suggest it could still be at least a decade away.

The most common types of quantum machines also require cooling to close to absolute zero, which makes them energy expensive. At a time when data centre owners are under increasing pressure to reduce energy usage, the demand has to be there to justify the expense of quantum hardware. And with many operating on low margins, they tend to err on the side of caution.

Data centre expert Paul Bevan, research director at Bloor Research, says for now quantum computers tend to be mainly found in supercomputing centres and national labs. He told Tech Monitor we are starting to see a gradual roll-out into mainstream data centres, particularly those belonging to the public cloud hyperscalers, but it is very early days.

This is because “the occupancy rates of co-location, wholesale and resale facilities are pretty good,” Bloor says. “There wasn’t the slowdown after Covid-19 many suspected, we didn’t see a massive reverse,” he explains. The rapid expansion of the cloud picked up some of the slack, and the rise of generative AI is adding further to demand for compute space.

He said that there is a long-lead time when it comes to investing in new leading-edge data centres and while they can be put up quickly, the planning and financing process can take up to a decade.

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“Quantum is still very niche. Equinix are unusual, they are more forward-thinking than usual,” Bloor says. “Data centre owners and investors’ real focus is energy efficiency. They are being hit from all sides on the subject and so they are asking themselves ‘how I stop myself getting beaten up on energy use’. Couple that with the fact it is a low-margin business and you can see why there might be a reluctance to adopt a niche technology.”

How quantum computing will progress to the data centre

Quantum computing also goes against the principles of cloud computing, Bloor says. “In cloud you develop fast, fail forward, iterate and then iterate again,” he explains “We are nowhere near there with quantum. You have to engineer it to a point where it will work and right now there are still challenges to address to get it to run effectively on an ongoing basis to make it move beyond the lab.”

Data is likely to have the biggest impact on whether data centre owners take the plunge on installing costly quantum hardware. That is where companies like QCWare come into the picture, through hybrid and co-located solutions.  It has partnered with QuiX Quantum to co-locate hardware on-site in a new data centre in the Netherlands that will integrate high-performance computing infrastructure with native quantum computing technology. It will be fully operational in August and the company says it will include shared memory access between the quantum and classical hardware.

This is an example of the benefits of having quantum and classical hardware in the same data centre, the company believes. “It provides significant performance improvements and cost savings over existing commercial hybrid quantum services,” it claims.

Bevan says this is a good example of early use cases. The quantum machine is based on photonics, and therefore can operate at room temperature. Couple this with the fact it is a new build data centre operated in partnership with a quantum start-up and the announcement still makes sense within the wider conservative approach to data centre investment.

Co-location and hybrid quantum data centres

But the rewards for bringing quantum data centres to life could be significant. Bringing quantum computers where the data is solves a number of security and latency concerns, says Stuart Woods, chief operating and strategy office for quantum-focused VC company Quantum Exponential. He is more bullish about the future of quantum computers in data centres and suggests the cloud makes it easier for companies to take risks.

“Six months ago you and I could go to AWS, Azure, IBM and get four different flavours of quantum computers,” he told Tech Monitor. “That is progress, but as I go from December to January this year the data centres are waking up. Equinix is an example where they installed loads of cloud computing and storage during Covid-19 and they ended up with more capacity than they needed.”

He said these data centres are slowly starting to realise that installing quantum hardware gives them another option. Quantum Exponential is an investor in Oxford Quantum Circuits, the partner Equinix worked with on its first quantum co-location in March. Woods says the benefit of having quantum hardware on site with real data is significant.

“Previously with AWS and others, we had to create exotic datasets, using synthetic data, to test on quantum computers as we couldn’t move the data across borders and most of the machines from companies like IBM, or on AWS where in a handful of countries. But now we’re in a new place where we are starting to see quantum computers arrive in data centres in locations where we have real-world data just one rack over.”

He said this means that an IT engineer working for a bank that hosts data in the Equinix Tokyo data centre will be able to run that data through quantum hardware. “That is what happened over the past four months and that is where I think things will evolve,” Woods says.

Read more: Could quantum computing make our energy grid sustainable?

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