Global CIO: Data Centers Behaving Boldly: Meet Tech's New Rock Stars

From Disney tourist attraction to economic-growth saviors to nuke-hardened The Bunker: data centers, always strategic, are becoming <i>way</i> cool.

Bob Evans, Contributor

February 1, 2010

9 Min Read

Like NFL offensive tackles, data centers used to be the antithesis of glamorous: massive, mysterious, strong as Samson, and indispensable to success, both were also ideal when operating in total anonymity: the only times you ever heard about either one was when there was a problem—usually a big one.

Oh how times have changed. Just as some NFL tackles now make $8 million a year and speak of themselves as "brands," so too has the humble data center exploded into the public consciousness as technology's impact on and presence in our personal and business lives have surged from essential to ubiquitous. Along the way to seeking the fastest and coolest and most-capable tools and toys, we've also become more aware of the behemoths that power all that functionality and access.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that banks are going to start holding Data Center Disco Nights to scrape up a little more revenue. No, in these days of increasingly lethal cyberattacks, most companies are taking huge steps to increase the physical and digital security of their data centers and enhance the privacy of the data and information held there.

Global CIO Global CIOs: A Site Just For You Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our new online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.

But a quick look at six very recent data-center developments shows clearly that they're no longer just anonymous drones laboring away endlessly in numbingly dull obscurity: quite the contrary. They've become signs of companies' massive investments in the future, such as with Microsoft's two brand-new data centers costing $500 million apiece; tourists attractions, in the case of a new IBM exhibit at DisneyWorld; home to the world's largest private cloud, as with Autonomy's seven data centers; sources of hoped-for economic development and growth in Washington state and Nebraska; nuke-hardened fortresses, such as the former Iceland NATO command-and-control center and an underground UK facility whose corporate name is The Bunker; and the U.S. government's super-but-not-totally secret NSA data center being built in Utah at a cost of $1.7 billion.

1) Disney Tourist Attraction. From Rich Miller's always informative and insightful website:

The data center is part of IBM's SmarterPlanet exhibit within Epcot's Innoventions center, which illustrates the role computers play in addressing complex challenges like reducing traffic and crime, and improving food safety and local water supplies.

The exhibit's glass storefront provides a glimpse of the working IBM Smarter Data Center, which powers the exhibit, and educates visitors about the servers, storage and networking equipment that serve up their favorite web sites and cloud computing services.

The exhibit is the latest sign data center technology is gaining a higher profile, slowly shedding the anonymity of the back-office server room or remote data center in a secure, undisclosed location. As the Internet becomes a more integral part of everyday life and the American economy, the back-end is moving out front.

And a related article on the website says the IBM exhibit at Disney has an IBM Cloudburst demo "geared toward businesses who want to drive down costs and accelerate time to market for new products."

2) Economic-Growth Engine. In the states of Washington and Nebraska, legislators are hoping to make their states more-appealing to businesses looking to build new data centers, but the two approaches are wildly different: Washington is offering tax breaks, while a Nebraska community is willing to raise the altitude of a huge swath of the community to avoid being designated a flood plain, which is a definite no-no on the data-center checklist.

Here's the Washington plan, from a Web Host Industry Review article: Up until November 2007, when the State Attorney General deemed that data centers did not qualify for an existing rural sales-tax exemption, the state was a a hotbed of data center construction activity. The proposed legislation would re-establish Washington as a desirable area for data center construction.

Last summer Governor Christine Gregoire introduced a bill to help data center operators secure tax discounts on their equipment but the bill was turned down, which likely influenced Microsoft to move its Azure cloud out of Washington.

"This legislation creates a window of opportunity to stimulate the economy in the short term with hundreds of badly needed construction jobs in Eastern Washington and, by restarting data center development in this state, to generate long-term high tech jobs and spur additional technology investment," said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, the lead sponsor of HB 3147.

Data centers usually create up to 500 or more construction jobs, in addition to the 30 to 50 permanent operating jobs to support the facility and its employees.

So while Washington's data-center play involves dropping taxes, Nebraska's involves raising the level of the land, according to an article on's website:

The city wants to eliminate the likely floodplain status on parts of 287 acres in the southwest part of town in order to develop it as a data center park. Not all the land is below the 1,095.86-feet-above sea level that may soon be defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as likely to flood in a 500-year weather event. But scattered parts of it are, based on a new topographical survey. To hold a data center, all of the site must be out of the flood zone.

The article notes that each data center "would add about 30 jobs paying in the $50,000-and-up range."

3) Hosting World's Largest Private Cloud. Certainly data centers are essential to the new wave of cloud computing that is the IT business's hostest trend in 2010, and Autonomy says it can lay claim being King of the Private Cloud via its Digital Safe private-cloud solution, in which it hosts "the storage and management of their email messages, rich-media files, instant messages (IMs), unified communications content, and content from over 400 repositories."

As we wrote late last year in a column called Global CIO: The World's Largest Private Cloud: Who's Number One?, Autonomy runs that monster cloud across its seven data centers and 6,500 servers handling 3 million new files per hour.

4) The Bunker and the NATO Command Center. In southeast England, writes's Miller, a company called The Bunker has received additional funding to expand its underground, nuclear-hardened facility:

The expansion by The Bunker reflects the growing niche for underground "nuke-proof" data storage facilities housed in former military facilities, mines or limestone caves. These subterranean fortresses have strong appeal for tenants seeking ultra-secure hosting that will survive any eventuality – including a nuclear blast.

This trend has given new life to aging military bunkers in the US, UK and Canada. Although security is usually the primary motivation for customers, underground facilities offer advantages to the data center operator. Chief among them is cooling, as these subterranean facilities typically have a natural temperature of 60 degrees or lower.

But if you want naturally low temperatures, Iceland's made for just that—and a project there to convert a former NATO command facility into an extremely secure data center has just received a huge investment from one of the world's largest biomedical research foundations. As we wrote last month, Iceland's naturally cool climate was a huge plus for the investors, who said, "Verne Global is breaking new ground in using Iceland's natural green resources to mitigate both increasing emissions and rising energy costs."

5) Microsoft's Two $500M Centers. A few months ago, Microsoft opened enormous data centers in Ireland (300,000 square feet) and Chicago (700,000 square feet) to help meet the needs of its new and expanding online businesses. That increasing need will require Microsoft, in just four years, to have 15 times as many servers as it now has, so the two new centers address a pressing need for Microsoft as more and more of its business moves online.

Here's what we wrote about the Chicago facility late last year:

Containers will play a huge role in the new facility. "Two-thirds of the Chicago data center is optimized for housing containerized servers," says an entry about Northlake on the Microsoft data center blog. "Containers conserve energy and will help us realize new advancements in power efficiency with a PUE yearly average calculated at 1.22. These prepackaged units (with up to 1,800 to 2,500 servers each) can be wheeled into the facility and made operational within hours, so they represent important advances in the ability to quickly and efficiently provision capacity. The density inside the containers can exceed 10 times that of traditional data centers" (emphasis added).

As for the Dublin data center, a Microsoft press release says it is "a milestone in our ongoing investment in Europe and provides the critical infrastructure to support the delivery of our next generation of online services for both businesses and consumers. This facility will play a central role in our promise to deliver computing experiences that seamlessly connect people, data, devices and applications across the digital workstyle and lifestyle."

6) Ultra-Secret Center in Utah. And then there's the NSA's $1.7 billion data center that's so secret that no one can say anything about it except that it's terribly hush-hush. Here's part of the description from a Salt Lake Tribune article:

Officials familiar with the project say it may bring as many as 1,200 high-tech jobs to Camp Williams, which borders Salt Lake, Utah and Tooele counties. It will also require at least 65 megawatts of power—about the same amount used by every home in Salt Lake City combined. A separate power substation will have to be built at Camp Williams to sustain that demand, said Col. Scott Olson, the Utah National Guard's legislative liaison.

He noted that there were two significant power corridors that ran though Camp Williams—a chief factor in the NSA's desire to build there. The NSA bills itself as the home of America's codemakers and codebreakers, but the Department of Defense agency is perhaps better known for its signals intelligence program, which is reported to have the capacity to tap into a significant amount of the world's communications.

So data centers have hit prime time. Can a new reality show be far behind?

About the Author(s)

Bob Evans


Bob Evans is senior VP, communications, for Oracle Corp. He is a former InformationWeek editor.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights