Pushing the Envelope in Data Center Design

Arthur Cole
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Data center design and construction has been pushing through a number of barriers lately, a product of virtualized infrastructure and the prevalence of high-speed connectivity to remote areas of the globe.

But as increased reliance on cloud computing leads to greater deployment of hyperscale infrastructure, it is hard to see how some of the more far-out designs will make a significant impact on the broader data ecosystem going forward.

Microsoft made a big “splash” (sorry) earlier this year when it deployed a submersible data center at Cal Poly Pier in the San Luis Obispo (California) Bay. The 10x7 foot capsule weighed about 38,000 pounds, according to the local Tribune newspaper, and had relatively modest computing capabilities, roughly equivalent to 300 desktops.

But the point wasn’t to test its data capabilities as much as to see how well a sensitive environment could exist within a cold, salt water environment, and whether that water would make an effective coolant. After 105 days, the unit was pulled back up, and while full details have not been disclosed, Microsoft appears to be satisfied that the idea has enough merit to contemplate underwater data centers at even greater depths.


Meanwhile, researchers in Japan are on a similar track, except their data center uses stored snow to provide cooling in the summer. The White Datacenter Project has built a facility on Hokkaido Island, which is roughly the same latitude as Portland, Ore., and receives a fair amount of snow each winter – up to 11 meters on some years. Island residents, in fact, had already established a practice in which snow is covered with a special insulating material so the run-off could be used for summer air-conditioning.

To that end, the Japanese government decided to fund an experiment to see if the concept could be applied to a 20-rack data facility. The set-up has a full heat exchanger under a snow pile, which maintains electricity-free 77-degrees F ambient temperature all the way to September when the facility is switched over to free-air cooling.

Physical designs are also starting to veer toward the unconventional. At a recent skyscraper design contest sponsored by eVolo Magazine, one of the prizes went to an Italian team that devised a 65-story internal exhaust chimney supporting multiple external data pods that can be added and removed robotically. According to Data Center Knowledge, the concept was inspired by standard motherboard designs and the Apple Mac Pro tower, as well as the Volkswagen Car Tower in Wolfsburg, Germany. The cooling aspect would largely mimic Vapor IO’s cylindrical Vapor Chamber, which features an internal cooling column that pulls hot air away from electrical components. Designers Marco Merletti and Valeria Mercuri say the ideal location for such a facility would be Iceland due to its cool climate and proximity to Europe and North America.

But probably the most “far-out” concept for an alternative data center is a space-based design envisioned by a company called Cloud Constellation Corp. The firm has proposed the SpaceBelt Information Ultra-Highway that would place an entire data infrastructure – servers, storage and networking – aboard a series of linked satellites that circle the globe. In this way, data users would have access from virtually anywhere on the planet without having to deal with local, regional or even national data sourcing regulations. Also, it would be impervious to natural disaster (at least of the terrestrial sort) and would provide the ultimate in cybersecurity because it would be separate from land-based networks, including the Internet. The company is currently on its second round of venture capital funding and is looking for technology partners for things like memory systems, satellite capacity, spacecraft and VSAT infrastructure.

It is truly amazing what can be accomplished when data infrastructure is no longer bound by physical practicalities. One shudders to think what will happen when abstract architectures team up with quantum computing – we’ll probably be talking about data centers on Mars or Saturn.

For the time being, however, the enterprise has business to attend to, and while imaginative data center designs are worthy of a few headlines, they will nonetheless need to provide a value proposition beyond lower cooling costs if they are to make a significant contribution to the emerging data economy.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata and Carpathia. Follow Art on Twitter @acole602.



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