North Campus Data Center: Bigger than Words

Cyber science buzz words are quite abstract and ephemeral to many people. Words like “cloud computing” and “big data” can seem like entities in technology that do not manifest themselves in the public realm even though they influence everything we do in daily life. Luckily for us, we were able to actually see the “cloud” and “big data” during our trip to the North Campus Data Center. It was an eye-opening experience to see how exactly a data center operates. Everything I imagined a data center would have was there, but I severely underestimated the complexity and scale of a data center and it’s full capabilities.

                We started the tour by entering the water cooling system. The amount of water necessary to cool the center was immense. Thousands of gallons of water are necessary to cool the entire data center. Knowing this, it’s quite reasonable to think that new water management and reuse techniques will become quite necessary as the amount of data and data centers expand faster and faster. Our tour guide mentioned how cooling water is reused by cooling the water down in a lower chamber before getting reused back up to the data centers, but I don’t recall him mentioning anything about how much new water they acquire on a regular basis.

                After the cooling room, we were taken into the auxiliary generator room. This was one of the most impressive features of the data center. In the event that power is lost, these gargantuan CAT generators would turn on to maintain the power throughout the data center. Both their scale and their effectiveness were outstanding. The generator has a very quick and sensitive response time since the sensitivity of the data contained at the center is so high. This is because a lot of the data is medical data and digital infrastructure from the Children’s Hospital. Medical records and data need to have 24/7 access, thus making power outage proofing a necessity for the data center. Thankfully the generator didn’t go off while we were touring it. While it would have been an awesome sight to see, hearing a fan powered by an engine with such immense horse power would not have been too easy on the ears.

                Another interesting point about the data center was its efforts to future-proof the center by making every room contain “n+1” installments. In every room, there were at least one or two designated spots that could be used to install another channel for water, generator, etc. I’m curious how long it would take for any of the extra slots to be used. How many data towers would it require before doubling the water cooling infrastructure? Is there a point where two generators would not be enough to power the data center in the event of a power emergency? Another interesting question to ask is, “what if data-scoring and processing technologies advanced in a way so they operated at less power, lower temperatures, etc.?” What if “heart” future proofing wasn’t required because of “brain” advancements? These questions make big data and cloud computing so fascinating because it’s so hard to predict the future of information technologies.

                After visiting the data center, I now have a new appreciation of the efforts and infrastructure that goes into creating “cloud computing” and “big data.” Even for a tech-savvy person such as myself, I realized that I truly didn’t appreciate how much effort and energy goes into creating everyday computing.

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