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9 Data Centers: Unexpected Beauty And Creativity

  • Take a look at the image of a beautiful chapel in Barcelona, Spain. You would never imagine that inside that lovely building is one of the world's most powerful supercomputers. It is that unexpected contrast that helped to inspire Douglas Alger to write a just-published book called The Art of the Data Center: A Look Inside the World's Most Innovative and Compelling Computing Environments.

    Alger is a former newspaper reporter who became an IT guy at Cisco. He now works as an IT architect in the Cisco on Cisco group, which shares the company's data center experiences and lessons learned with outside organizations. He previously worked on the data center design and operations teams at Cisco. He also has written other books on data centers, including Build the Best Data Center Facility for Your Business and Grow a Greener Data Center, and writes the Data Center Reconstructed blog for Cisco.

    While researching his book on green data centers, Alger came across some images of the Bahnhof data center in Sweden. "It looked sleek and impressive. It was a James Bond data center, with dramatic lighting, artificial waterfalls. I knew there was a great story to tell," he said.

    So he started looking for and making a list of interesting data centers. "There are stories to tell about these rooms. I mentioned the idea to my wife and she said that she might read this kind of book. That's when I knew I might have a good idea since she isn't involved in data centers at all," he laughed.

    The book features 18 data centers, all of which have some unusual aspect. As befits a book written by a true data center geek, it has stats sheets on each data center that details everything from power consumption to time to design and build to what kind of fire suppression system is in place. There are many interviews with the key people involved in designing and building the data centers, covering the challenges faced and lessons learned.

    For example, Jon Karlung, founder and chairman of Bahnhof, describes why he built an underground data center with unusual features: "It was a fun thing to do. It is like playing. The funness of it also brought us an advantage in marketing. The great inspiration has been one-part James Bond and one-part Star Trek or science fiction movies and stuff like that."

    The book also is filled with photos that show in great detail many of the unusual aspects of each data center, from the cooling systems to the architectural details to design and placement of infrastructure systems. You can get a taste of the images featured in The Art of the Data Center in the following slideshow. Images courtesy of Barcelona Supercomputing Center

  • The opening image to this slideshow shows the outside of the Torre Girona chapel in Barcelona, which the Spanish government converted into the home of the MareNostrum supercomputer. The building had been deconsecrated and the designers had to figure out how to modify and upgrade the 1920s building to support a modern supercomputer without destroying its architectural beauty. The MareNostrum uses more than 10,000 processors to perform 94 trillion operations per second, and is housed in what has been called one of the most beautiful data centers in the world. The supercomputing center sits in a glass box in the middle of the chapel. Images courtesy of Barcelona Supercomputing Center

  • There is an underground data center in Stockholm, Sweden, that looks like it was built for a James Bond movie. The Bahnhof Data Center is known as Pionen White Mountains, its wartime codename. Inside you can find artificial waterfalls, greenhouses, second-hand diesel engines from German submarines to provide backup power, and a horn that sounds like a sub to alert operators in case of a system malfunction. A circular, glass-walled conference room with an image of the moon on the floor overlooks the server room. The former nuclear bunker is 100 feet underground and has metal doors more than a foot thick. It took two and half years to design and build. Image courtesy of Bahnhof

  • A circular, glass-walled conference room overlooks the Bahnhof Data Center's server rows. Image provided courtesy of Bahnhof.

  • ACT, a non-profit that runs a college entrance exam testing service, built a data center next to its headquarters in Iowa City, Iowa, that was the first in the country to win a LEED-Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. It uses a wide range of renewable or recycled materials such as aspen fiber ceiling panels, cork flooring, and cotton-wall insulation. It uses geothermal cooling and above-ground dry cooling, and is designed to withstand wind speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. It is linked to a second data center a few miles away. Image courtesy of Neumann Monson Architects.

  • For the most part, data centers are viewed as power hogs. They consume vast amounts of electricity to run their machines and cool the facility. A data center in Romoland, Calif., run by Affordable Internet Services Online, proves that doesn't have to be the case. It uses 120 solar panels to provide its primary power and has mirrored tubes to bring in natural light. It has a 10,000 gallon rainwater collection system to avoid using the municipal water supply. It also uses air conditioning systems that the provider says consume 90% less energy than conventional air conditioners. Image courtesy of AISO.

  • On the University Lavel campus in Quebec City, Canada, the Calcul Quebec (Compute Quebec) research consortium has converted a building that once housed a Van de Graaf particle accelerator into a multi-level data center. There are three floors of computing hardware, with server cabinets set in outward-facing circles sitting on grated floors that allow cool air to flow through into a hot core at the center for venting. The building was built in 1965 and served as a research center for nuclear physics and, developers say, required only minor modifications to turn into a data center. Some of the heat generated by the data center is used to warm buildings on the campus. Image courtesy of Calcul Quebec.

  • Networking giant Cisco opened a pair of new data centers 15 miles apart in Allen, Texas, in 2011. The two sites serve as active-active mirrors of each other to ensure immediate failover in case either suffers an outage. The Metro Virtual Data Center, as Cisco calls this approach, is being adopted by the company in several other locations around the world. The centers incorporate many modern data center trends: using outside air for cooling more than half of the time, enclosed cabinets with chimneys to keep hardware exhaust air isolated from incoming chilled air, rotary UPS rather than conventional batteries, solar panels and LED lighting, and a lagoon that collects rainwater for irrigation. Image courtesy of Douglas Alger

  • The Lakeside Technology Center in Chicago is a registered historic landmark, originally constructed between 1912 and1914. It was converted into space for telecom companies around the turn of the century and houses multiple data centers. It is considered one of the world's largest carrier hotels and has more power capacity than Chicago O'Hare International Airport. It uses an 8.5 million gallon tank for thermal storage. Originally designed and built for the RR Donnelley Printing company, it is now owned by Digital Realty Trust. The strong floors that once held up printing presses now support rows of switches, routers, storage systems, and standby power generators. Image courtesy of Digital Realty Trust.

  • When eBay decided to build a data center in 2011 in Phoenix, Ariz., the online auction site and marketplace wanted something different than the standard boring box of a building. It accomplished that with the Project Mercury Data Center, which takes its design cues from the movie Tron: Legacy. During the grand opening, eBay showed a video of staffers dressed in Tron outfits using glowing discs and light sabers to fend off a denial of service attack. In an unusual move, eBay issued a public request for proposals and invited outside firms to submit designs. It also chose to go with standardized hardware, apps, and processes so additional resources can easily be added as needed. And a good chunk of the center's processing capacity comes from containerized servers on the roof. Image courtesy of eBay.