It’s not an overstatement to say that cloud computing has revolutionized how business is done in this country. It has fundamentally changed the IT infrastructure by moving the processing from data centers in individual companies to massive, centralized facilities used by thousands of companies simultaneously. Cloud computing has changed data center design but not in the way you might think.
What The Experts Predicted
As SaaS grew in popularity, the talking heads predicted we would need bigger data centers.
As computing power was moved away from the desktop and into the cloud, the servers would need to work harder and more data would be transferred across the network. This meant more and bigger data centers would start popping up like Starbucks stores in the 80s.
Some experts thought this would lead to a significant reduction in IT power consumption. It’s more efficient to run one central data center than a bunch of smaller ones scattered across the country. As end users switched to thin clients, their computers would require less power. However, others thought the growing demand for the huge energy-guzzling servers and their even more energy-guzzling cooling systems would lead to a massive spike in energy consumption. Greenpeace predicted IT energy costs would triple by 2020.
What Really Happened
We are still in the transition state, but one thing can be seen: these zillions of new data centers we were supposed to need aren’t being built. The demand for more processing capacity is there, but companies have started to get smart about how they use their resources. The average corporate server runs at only 12 to 18 percent capacity. That means that, in theory, a similarly-sized data center could service five or more companies with the same equipment.
Data center designers have started to get smart about old equipment. Individual company server operations tend to keep inefficient legacy equipment around “just in case”. The big multi-client data centers realized they can replace these outdated systems with faster machines and do more in the same space. Dell said in 2010 that they may never need to build another data center if they learn to use their existing facilities more efficiently.
The downside to packing more processing into the same space is it also means more heat. Data center designers have had to come up with innovative new cooling solutions to keep these servers running. This is easier to do in a centralized facility than it is to do in a server room stuck in the middle of a commercial building. Modern data center designs carefully lay out every source of heat and every source of cooling in an efficient network meant to move the heat using as little energy as possible.
In some cases these brilliant “new” designs are really very old. Heat buildup is not unique to the IT world. As long as we’ve had industry, we’ve had waste heat. In days when architects didn’t have massive refrigerated air units to cool the factories, they learned to build the plants to allow natural air flow to cool the machines and the workers. Today’s IT architects are rediscovering the same techniques.
Clean And Reliable Power
Without power, your data center won’t run. Big IT operations have big power demands and sometimes the grid isn’t as reliable as they need. A few minutes of downtime is a disaster; a few hours of downtime could cause some companies to go out of business. Traditionally, data centers use diesel generators during outages, but these are temporary solutions and aren’t all that environmentally friendly.
Some of the biggest data centers are building their own power networks. Google, for example, is investing in a $75m wind farm in Iowa to support their data center expansion there. Companies run their own electrical facilities to give them control over their utilities and over their carbon footprint. A growing number of the big IT operations are investing in solar and wind power complexes, either on their own or in partnership with other like-minded companies, to offset their facilities’ hunger for energy and to improve their public images.
The internal server farm is likely to become a thing of the past except for massive corporations or organizations with special security or infrastructure requirements. Cloud computing should continue to consolidate data centers and these central facilities will need to constantly improve to provide more capacity without needing a whole lot more room or energy.
About the Author
Trey Austin is a writer for Data Centers Delivered, a provider of custom turnkey data center solutions that meet the changing needs of today’s business. Their innovative modular data center system offers flexible designs, fast construction and low construction costs. Find them on Google+.