What is digital infrastructure?

Digital infrastructure usually represents the physical assets required to operate technologies such as digital communication, computing or data storage. The word “infrastructure” implies primary importance in the operation of an organisation which can range from modest to planetary.

For instance, the digital infrastructure of a small company usually comprehend a shelf or facility with a few servers, some cables running in and out the buildings, different machines or terminals and pieces of software that are used to run the business. At the global level, inter-continental submarine cables and fiber optic backbones are also considered digital infrastructures.

As you may have noticed, I include software as a physical asset. That is because software ultimately exists as a material entity stored in one or several hard disks — despite the amount of knowledge-intensive work required to produce it. Software is considered an infrastructure if it plays a vital role in the daily operations of an organisation (such as a booking system for an hotel).

Besides cables laying, the administration of data centers (hardware and software) is a very important part of digital infrastructure work. In the last decade, an enormous amount of effort has been dedicated to scale up the digital capacity worldwide. The number of machines went from a few millions to several billions. Server-side, major companies like Amazon, Alibaba or Microsoft stepped in to build and provide this growing digital infrastructure — usually known as “the cloud”.

Taking care of your own computer can already be painful, so you can imagine what happens when you have hundreds of thousands. Plus, modern applications have become very modular, with distributed structures, complicated dependencies and operating systems requirements. To face this complexity, specific tools and languages have been developed to automatise the management of infrastructure — often found under the umbrella of infrastructure as code.

This convergence of software and hardware finds a recent expression in technologies such as FPGA or ASIC miner used by the Bitcoin miners. Here a single program with a defined task is encoded directly in the hardware. Therefore, most “digital” infrastructure work becomes maintenance of the facilities (building shelves to stack and plug the machines) and energy supply (build a dam?).

The Bitcoin mining example shows the difficulty of defining where “digital” infrastructure exactly ends and where more traditional infrastructural work starts. More and more, digital technologies have become part of our daily lives and are integrated with larger set of issues that goes way beyond “digital” — environment, energy, urban management, social relationships, etc.

This is particularly obvious in countries like China where urbanisation and computerisation have happened together during the last three decades. Companies like Tencent or Alibaba are involved in building infrastructure that are much bigger than just media and advertisement network. A mobile application like Tencent WeChat has become the main infrastructure for hundreds of millions of Chinese people to cooperate at work, talk to their families, pay bills, buy things, find friends in a new city, and much more.

Around the world, governments also (try to) rely extensively on digital infrastructure to develop their national economy, regulate their territory and project power inside and outside their national boundaries.

If “digital infrastructure” may remain a technical word for IT professionals in the near future, it is becoming an obsolete concept to understand the relationships between digital technologies and infrastructures. Digital technologies are gradually integrating in many sectors of life, becoming harder to separate conceptually from other activities, blurring frontiers between different types of infrastructures. Apparently, this trend should only increase as large investments programs in digital technologies continue to appear worldwide under keywords like AI, robotics or smart cities.

This text was originally published in quora.

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