Hyperscale Data Centres — 10th May 2021

Our speaker this week, who wished to remain anonym­ous due to com­mer­cial sens­it­iv­it­ies, addressed us dir­ectly — cour­tesy modern tech­no­logy — from a loc­a­tion in the west­ern US.  He is cur­rently work­ing as a Construction Manager with one of the World ‘Premier League’ (Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, etc.) of ‘High Tec’ Corporations, com­mis­sion­ing a new site in a remote loc­a­tion.   He is an expert in the design and imple­ment­a­tion of large scale pro­jects, who had pre­vi­ously spoken to us about how under­wa­ter cables trans­mit­ted 90% of inter­net traffic.  After leav­ing a local Comprehensive School, our speaker won a schol­ar­ship to study Construction at a University in Greater Manchester.  He went on to work on such devel­op­ments as the Manchester Arena, major hos­pit­als and a BT data centre on the Isle of Man.

Many of us recall put­ting coins in a tele­phone box, with mobile phones not common before 1990. The typing pool had not yet been replaced by the com­puter or word pro­cessor.  While our level of expert­ise varies, most of us take elec­tronic com­mu­nic­a­tions for gran­ted these days.  The World Wide Web has trans­formed the way we do busi­ness and keep in touch.  The cur­rent ‘Covid lock­down’ has boos­ted usage and caused dis­rup­tion to tra­di­tional ways of pur­chas­ing goods and ser­vices.  Family meet­ings, University lec­tures, Church ser­vices, and even Probus talks like this one, are now routinely ‘streamed’ or ‘zoomed’.  The pace and capa­city of change is speed­ing up and has become dom­in­ated by large, mostly US and Chinese based organ­isa­tions.

Having set the scene, our speaker was to open our eyes to the infra­struc­ture and equip­ment ‘archi­tec­ture’ required to sup­port and ser­vice these devel­op­ments.  He divided his illus­trated talk into four sec­tions:

 What is a Hyperscale Data Center (HDC)?

Traditional data centres are cent­ral­ised facil­it­ies that house organ­isa­tions’ crit­ical data and applic­a­tions.  They use com­put­ing, net­work­ing sys­tems and equip­ment to store data and enable users’ access to resources.  HDCs are sig­ni­fic­antly larger, to the extent that they can accom­mod­ate mil­lions of serv­ers and more vir­tual machines.  Hyperscaling is neces­sary for ‘Cloud’ and large scale pro­vi­sion, while being more cost effect­ive and improv­ing busi­ness oper­a­tions.  It allows flex­ible expan­sion to meet organ­isa­tions’ grow­ing inter­net, data stor­age and com­put­ing net­works, without requir­ing addi­tional cool­ing, elec­trical power or phys­ical space.

An HDC houses net­work­ing serv­ers hori­zont­ally, enabling them to quickly and simply be added or removed as capa­city demands increase and decrease.  A load bal­an­cer man­ages this pro­cess by mon­it­or­ing the amount of data that needs to be pro­cessed.  Customers are alloc­ated rented capa­city, reg­u­lated either through their kilo­watt con­sump­tion or the number of ‘stor­age racks’ they require.

Where are HDCs built?

HDCs facil­it­ies require at least 10,000 square feet to house 5000+ serv­ers that run on ultra- high speed fibre net­works, but many are much larger.  Our speaker’s site requires 152K sq  ft (about 350 acres) but is dwarfed by one in Texas, of 2.5 mil­lion sq ft .  Such sites are unlikely to be found within cities due to plan­ning restric­tions.  They are increas­ingly being loc­ated in run down or undeveloped rural areas where there are few job oppor­tun­it­ies.  Sites should ideally be well away from seis­mic, flood­ing and extreme weather threats.  For these reas­ons, HDCs are not freest­and­ing but typ­ic­ally linked to a net­work of five or six other HDCs in dif­fer­ent loc­a­tions, to provide both secur­ity and mutual backup. There are likely to be around 700 such sites world­wide by 2024.

How are HDC’s built?

To give us an impres­sion of the major pro­ject in which he has a vital role, our speaker  showed a video of  an HDC site under con­struc­tion.  Contractor and sub-contractors and their men and equip­ment were seen moving in sequence from ground clear­ance and ground­works to roof­ing.  We saw  trench­ing and the install­a­tion of storm drains, ser­vice duct­ing, laying  of rein­forced con­crete found­a­tions to  erect­ing steel (sourced from sev­eral sup­pli­ers) roof sup­ports and finally cov­er­ing.  The next stage was the fit­ting and kit­ting of elec­trical equip­ment and build­ing ser­vices.

The typ­ical con­struc­tion time to com­mis­sion­ing is about 18–24 months, requir­ing a large ini­tial labour and plant equip­ment input.  The Permanent on site work­force will, how­ever, be small, per­haps 100 man­agers and tech­ni­cians.  Such remote siting needs new roads, but easing access may bring secur­ity con­cerns.  Protective meas­ures such as deep burial in con­crete of fibre and elec­tri­city cables and secur­ity fen­cing and entrance restric­tions are spe­cified.  Electricity will be sup­plied from at least two grids, from which power can be ‘stepped down’.  Cooling power, assisted by under­floor vent­il­a­tion, is con­cen­trated towards serv­ers that host high-intensity work­loads and air flow optim­ised to reclaim and recycle heat.

The Changing Landscape

Our Speaker con­cluded his present­a­tion by invit­ing us to move from present con­struc­tion to a peep into the future.  Where could we be in forty years’ time?   It’s beyond ima­gin­a­tion!  Did anyone anti­cip­ate forty years ago that today they could see (in colour) and chat to their family in Australia on their tablet or mobile?  Communication tech­no­logy is speed­ing up and widen­ing its applic­a­tions: such fields as lit­ig­a­tion, med­ical sci­ence and bio­tech­no­logy are open­ing up and net­works will both respond to and stim­u­late devel­op­ments.  He pre­dicted that there will  be a massive growth in ‘cloud’ back up/storage facil­it­ies.  There will be a need for both HDCs and smal­ler facil­it­ies, made pos­sible by the devel­op­ment of micro equip­ment, and a require­ment for rel­ev­ant tech­nical edu­ca­tion if eco­nom­ies are to remain com­pet­it­ive.  To meet local or spe­cial­ist needs smal­ler facil­it­ies such as those in the UK at Slough and Waltham Cross will have to be built.  Larger schemes espe­cially, will need to reflect grow­ing envir­on­mental con­cerns i.e., placed near hydro/solar/wind facil­it­ies or even canals and sew­er­age farms, where dirty or ‘grey’water can be recycled after use as a coolant.

 Our Speaker was warmly thanked for his fas­cin­at­ing present­a­tion.