The serene countryside around the Columbia River in the northwestern United States has emerged as a major, and perhaps unexpected, battleground among Internet powerhouses. That’s where Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo have built some of the world’s largest and most advanced computer facilities: colossal warehouses packed with tens of thousands of servers that will propel the next generation of Internet applications. Call it the data center arms race.
The companies flocked to the region because of its affordable land, readily available fiber-optic connectivity, abundant water, and even more important, inexpensive electricity. These factors are critical to today’s large-scale data centers, whose sheer size and power needs eclipse those of the previous generation by one or even two orders of magnitude.
These new data centers are the physical manifestation of what Internet companies are calling cloud computing. The idea is that sprawling collections of servers, storage systems, and network equipment will form a seamless infrastructure capable of running applications and storing data remotely, while the computers people own will provide little more than the interface to connect to the increasingly capable Internet.
All of this means that what had been not-so-glamorous bit players of the tech world—the distant data centers—have now come into the limelight. But getting their design, operation, and location right is a daunting task. The engineers behind today’s mega data centers—some call them Internet data centers, to differentiate them from earlier ones—are turning to a host of new strategies and technologies to cut construction and operating costs, consume less energy, incorporate greener materials and processes, and in general make the facilities more flexible and easier to expand. Among other things, data centers are adopting advanced power management hardware, water-based cooling systems, and denser server configurations, making these facilities much different from conventional air-conditioned server rooms.
Take Microsoft’s data center in Quincy, Wash., with more than 43 600 square meters of space, or nearly the area of 10 American football fields. The company is tight-lipped about the number of servers at the site, but it does say the facility uses 4.8 kilometers of chiller piping, 965 km of electrical wire, 92 900 m2 of drywall, and 1.5 metric tons of batteries for backup power. And the data center consumes 48 megawatts—enough power for 40 000 homes.
Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., also chose the tiny town of Quincy—population 5044, tucked in a valley dotted with potato farms—for its state-of-the-art, 13 000-m2 facility, its second in the region. The company says it plans to operate both data centers with a zero-carbon footprint by using, among other things, hydropower, water-based chillers, and external cold air to do some of the cooling. As some observers put it, the potato farms have yielded to the server farms.
To the south, Google, headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., opened a vast data center on the banks of the Columbia, in The Dalles, Ore. The site has two active buildings, each 6500 m2, and there’s been talk of setting up a third. Google, however, won’t discuss its expansion plans. Nor will it say how many servers the complex houses or how much energy and water it consumes. When it comes to data centers these days, there’s a lot of experimentation going on, and companies are understandably secretive.
Another hush-hush data center project is taking place about 100 km east, in Boardman, Ore. Last year, news emerged that its owner is the Seattle-based online retailer Amazon, a major contender in the cloud-computing market. The facility is said to include three buildings and a 10-MW electrical substation, but the company has declined to confirm details.
Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are trying to keep up with the ever-growing demand for Internet services like searching, image and video sharing, and social networking. But they’re also betting on the explosive growth of Web-based applications that will run on their computer clouds. These apps, which display information to users on an Internet browser while processing and storing data on remote servers, range from simple Web-based e-mail like Gmail and Hotmail to more complex services like Google Docs’ word processor and spreadsheet. The applications also include a variety of enterprise platforms like Salesforce.com’s customer management system. So the race to the clouds is on. It’s taking place not only in the Pacific Northwest but also in many other parts of the United States and elsewhere.