The growth of the Internet has forced data center managers to think of new ways to provide the resources required for their organizations to stay online. As a result, data centers are showing up in unexpected places these days -- like ships, shopping malls, and deserts.
Last August, a New York Times blog reported on Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s patent filing for floating data centers, to be located three to seven miles from shore. According the article, “Google would create mobile data center platforms out at sea by stacking containers filled with servers, storage systems and networking gear on barges or other platforms.”
The idea was to put Google servers closer to customers, while tapping a potential energy source from seawater.
In a similar vein, bloggers have been speculating over the past few months about a plan to build data centers on decommissioned ships. San Francisco-based IDS hopes to build 50 such facilities worldwide starting later this year.
Going from ships to shipping containers: In July, Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) introduced its Performance-Optimized Data Center (POD), a 40-foot shipping container that serves as the equivalent of about 4,000 square feet of a typical data center. HP competitor Sun Microsystems Inc. offers a similar product. Both companies claim the approach lets customers add denser, more fuel-efficient, and flexible additions and modifications to their facilities.
Plenty of innovation is happening on terra firma, too. Lifeline Datacenters, for example, is in the process of transforming a 40-acre defunct mall in Indianapolis into a 450,000-square-foot data center.
Reusing closed-down locations is a worthy endeavor. Advanced Data Centers is following suit by building its new data center on a "brownfield." defined by the EPA as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”
The building site is the former McClellan Air Force Base, which sits atop an area of polluted groundwater. Selecting such a site for redemption helped the company become the first data center to be pre-certified as meeting the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard.
Boston College’s IT department took adaptive reuse to a “higher” level when it located its centralized data center in a former chapel two years ago. The facility houses about 75 departmental servers, illuminated by stained glass windows.
Interestingly, one of the center’s stained glass windows contains an image of Saint Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the Internet. [Ed. note: St. Izzy was a real visionary.] Seeking solace below ground, data centers also are reincarnating as bunkers. A subterranean data center, affectionately dubbed “the cave,” serves as Dallas-based PHNS's national data center for its hospital customers. The 56,000-square-foot facility is situated within a limestone cave, 85 feet beneath the surface -- virtually immune to surface disasters.
Some are thinking about placing data centers out in the elements.
One green-thinking boffin sees the possibility of data centers in deserts, close to a power-generating windmill. According to a recent blog, Andrew Hopper, head of the Cambridge University Computing Lab, proposes placing a data center directly at the site of a renewable energy source and using fiber optic cable to link it to the entity that uses it. “The source could be located in the middle of a desert, on a platform attached to an ocean wind turbine, or anywhere else where power could be easily generated,” he said.
In a similar vein, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) conducted an experiment from November 2007 through June 2008 during which five servers were put into a metal-framed tent outdoors. The result? Zero failures.
Perhaps we could forget about bunkers and ships and chapels, and just stick our data centers out in the open. Maybe we could camouflage them as graveyards, or plant nurseries, or trailer parks?
— Deborah Nason is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.
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