Data center: Thrilling, eerie cornerstone of our digital lives

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 07, 2019 15:51 hrs
Data Center (Image courtesy: Sify)

New Delhi: While the debate rages on whether data is the new oil, air or electricity, the crux of the matter is: data continues to grow at a humongous scale and every time you look something up on your smartphone, you pull data from a mammoth data center located at some discreet part of the world that almost no one gets to step aside.

There are unforeseen challenges in running such a gigantic facility and according to Microsoft President Brad Smith, the best place to see the inner workings of the Cloud is the world's capital of apples (he means the fruit) - the tiny town of Quincy in Washington State.

"Our facilities in Quincy are no longer just a single building. They fill two data center campuses, with more than 20 buildings, totalling 2 million square feet. Each building is the size of two football fields, and is big enough to house two large commercial airplanes," Smith writes in his new book, titled "Tools and Weapons".

This collection of buildings is home to hundreds of thousands of server computers and millions of hard disks, each of which is replaced with faster, more efficient models, every three years.

Sitting outside the walls of each building are some of the world's largest electrical generators ready to power up within seconds to ensure the data center doesn't skip a beat in case the region's electrical grid goes down.

"Each generator can power the equivalent of more than 2,000 homes and is connected to diesel fuel tanks that can keep the data center running off the grid for 48 hours with refueling arrangements in place to keep the operations up well beyond if needed," writes Smith.

Inside each building, a string of large secure rooms operate as electrical substations, typically pulling power from the electrical grid at two 2,30,000 volts before reducing it to 240 volts to power the data center.

Inside the data center, the substation rooms are lined with rows of six-foot racks, each connecting 500 or more batteries that look like what you find under the hood of your car.

Every door to the room is bulletproof and every wall is fireproof. A typical data center building has four or more of these rooms and a building may house as many as 5,000 batteries.

"They serve two purposes. First electricity from the grid flows through the racks, keeping batteries charged and circumventing a potential electrical spike, so the flow of electricity to the computers remains smooth and constant.

"And in the event of a power outage, the batteries will keep the data center operating until a generator startup," Smith says.<br>Finally you enter a cavernous room, "a temple to the information age and cornerstone of our digital lives".

Here, you see floor-to-ceiling racks filled with computers, lined up in a formation that extends beyond your line of sight. It is the world's filing cabinet.

"Somewhere in one of these rooms on one of these buildings, there are data files that belong to you. They have the email you wrote this morning and the photo you took yesterday afternoon. The files occupy just a tiny sliver of a hard drive on one of these computers".

Each data center building has multiple rooms like this, sealed off from one another in case of fire. Each set of computers is connected to three power sources within the building.

There is more to it.

Each data center region has another set of buildings somewhere, so the key, sensitive data of a business or government can be backed up somewhere else.

"This way, if there is an earthquake, hurricane, or some other natural or man-made disaster, the second data center will step in to keep your Cloud service operating smoothly," writes Smith.

Today, Microsoft owns, operates, and leases data centers of all sizes in over 100 locations in more than 20 countries.

Imagine what Amazon, Google, IBM, Oracle and other Cloud providers are doing with safeguarding your data at multiple data centers across the world, while building more such facilities as data grows exponentially.