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Report from a Data Center: Part 1, Getting in the door

The Windows IT Pro and SharePoint Pro editors headed out recently on a field trip. Their destination: an unmarked data center. Their mission: to recount life behind the scenes in a huge nondescript warehouse containing thousands upon thousands of servers. This is one editor’s story. The names have been omitted to protect the innocent, the flippant, and the clumsy.


Data centers are an unseen layer, the lining of the fabric of everyday life, like the pipes and cables that lie beneath our houses and streets and convey water, fuel, electricity, and communications so that we don’t even need to think about what an amazing thing it is that we can turn on a faucet or flick a light switch and receive, respectively,  clean water or instant light.

Data centers, if they were animals, would be massive African elephants standing without twitching in front of gray walls the color of elephant hide. Data centers, if they were people, would be the equivalent of a librarian and a spy mashed into one. Data centers are boring and made to appear even more boring on purpose, the equivalent of the Star Wars lines spoken by Obi Wan Kenobi in the village to the white plastic storm troopers—“Nothing to see here, move along.” But there’s also something fascinating about their nondescript-ness, the reason for their blending in, and their reason for existing in the first place.

If data centers were grocery stores, some would be Mom and Pop operations, and some would be mega-superstores.  Most have, as grocery stores have, consolidated and become larger operations. Within the space there are the “Sam’s Club” style data centers that offer purely a good deal and the basic real estate for a server farm, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, the high-end specialty grocer style of data center that offers additional features, such as high availability or managed services or hardened physical and network security—features for which the customers who want them are willing to pay dearly.

We visited a data center in a warehouse park in greater metropolitan Denver which would probably be considered at the Whole Foods end of the market rather than the Sam’s Club end. Its sweet spot is offering high availability to organizations that  need to have next-to-zero downtime. We didn’t talk about specific service level agreements (SLAs) with the product manager and operations manager who led the tour, but given the redundancies and backups in place ready for failover, the customers of this data center obviously want and pay for the peace of mind of a redundant cooler in case the primary cooler should go down, the extra cooling tower in case the primary cooling tower should fail, the extra generators to provide power should the nearby utility grid go down, the extra batteries to kick in while the backup generators are firing up-- so that a server is never left unpowered, not even for a nanosecond.

Here's the primary cooler, or perhaps chiller is the more accurate word, and the spare.

Besides redundancy, which this data center’s clients require, there’s also the matter of security. It’s not a Fort Knox of a data center—it’s on a city street within a quick jog of a housing subdivision, a discount store, and some fast food restaurants. If someone wanted to drive a tank through the front doors, they’d likely succeed. This data center’s just hardened enough to make it difficult for the average person with questionable motives to penetrate. But first such a person would have to find the place. And that’s tricky too.

There is no sign on the building. The smartphone GPS systems our coworkers used to find the place revealed no name of a company in their directions. The operations manager said that the “Reserved Parking” signs out front had originally had the name of the company on them, but that they’d had the signs redone to remove the company name and say something like “Reserved Parking for this building.”

Inside, there are security cameras everywhere, and the entrance is staffed by security personnel. Every door in sight seems to have a smart card required to enter it, and of course, employees get varying levels of access to various parts of the building depending on need. We asked about taking photos and were told we could but that no close-ups of equipment and no shots of personnel were allowed. After we were properly signed in and our identities verified, we hung temporary badges around our necks and went to a briefing room for background about the facility.

Report from a Data Center, Part 2: A visual for multi-tenant vs. dedicated
Report from a Data Center, Part 3: Green is not yet green 



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