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Report from a Data Center: Part 2, A visual for multi-tenant vs. dedicated

It turns out the place has been a data center since 2001, though it’s had four or five owners since then. We learned that customers tend to either be from this geographical area, so they can visit their servers, or they tend to use this data center as a backup for their more conveniently located primary data center in their region outside of the Rocky Mountain west.

One customer from out of the region keeps two employees in Colorado, based at the data center, just to mind its servers. Customers range from major companies to mom-and-pop operations, in a variety of industries. Obviously, the data center employees were close-mouthed about just exactly who their customers were, though based on the services offered and the level of security, one could guess that customers weren’t the kind that would fear terrorists getting hold of their data but also not the kind to sacrifice security and redundancy for a lower price. 

We asked about trends; we asked about equipment; we asked about platforms. The answers were “We’re expanding our facilities,” which, given that it’s the first time in several years that this place has expanded could speak to the rising importance of data centers with many organizations and “we’re adding cloud services,” which speaks to the increased use of cloud computing; also “Whatever the customer wants to use, typically Dell or HP servers”; and “Some are on Windows, some are on UNIX/Linux, et cetera.”

We then followed our tour guides and minders past the bank of security monitors into the man trap. The man trap is a closet the size of a large corporate elevator. The operations manager waved his smart card at the door and we followed him into the man trap. Then he made sure the door behind us was closed, after which he then waved his smart card at another door on the opposite side of the man trap and opened it. I wondered if while in the man trap we had been scanned in some way, but I rather doubted it, because the company seemed to do middle-of-the-road security measures, involving common sense procedures but not cutting-edge measures. Still, it would have been interesting.(I have probably watched too many movies.)

After the man trap, we emerged into a long, grim corridor and slipped into a high ceilinged room that contained an SUV-sized cylinder called a chiller and its backup clone. Here the water is piped in, chilled, and carried out through large white pipes to the server rooms. We slipped outside and checked out the two 2-story high evaporative cooling towers. After the water is used to cool the air in the server rooms, it needs to be recirculated and recooled. It goes to the cooling towers where it drips down and is cooled, a method not as effective in high humidity climates but highly effective for these purposes in the dry, semi-arid climate of Colorado.

Evaporative cooling towers against a Colorado sky threatening rain and snow.

Data Center Cooling Towers photo by Jeff James

Farther along the wall of the back of the massive warehouse, we saw workers busy getting ready to install additional generators. Then we traipsed back inside to another large room where we found transformers in metal boxes taller than us working noisily away.

A brief stop inside the battery charging room and we gathered next to the chemistry-lab-like-shower-spigot (in case of acid spills on human skin) to view the row upon row of batteries. They were black as car batteries but maybe twice the size and stacked up in four foot high walls. A yellow rail on the floor marked where you could walk and where you ought not to. One of the editors stepped inside the yellow rail, closer to the battery walls, and the operations manager told him to get back on the other side, adding that if he wanted to end it all right there, he could simply lick his hand and slap it against the battery.

Next was the most interesting part for me, but really, the easy, fluffy part for a data center—the actual server room. Up a ramp and onto the raised floor we tromped, noting the floor tiles, which were NOT like the automatic venting tiles we’d seen a few weeks ago at the HP research facility in Fort Collins but rather just had openings that remained static.

You could feel the cool and hot aisles, cool aisles, of course, being the fronts of the server rows and hot aisles being the backs of the server rows. The operations manager said that the hot air in the hot aisles rises and is vented outside, a surprisingly low-tech solution, I thought. And, as you would assume, the vented floor tiles in front of the server cabinets are where the cool air comes in. 

The ops manager then picked up a metal rod with two plumber’s-plunger-sized suction cups and slapped it down on a floor tile, lifting the tile so we could see underneath. More than three feet below us lay a concrete slab on which the building rested, with trenches cut even deeper for the white chilled water pipes. An orange cord snaked across the concrete—a sensor to detect any water leaks. Above the trench ran two shiny metal troughs—one holding electrical cords, the other higher one holding fiber optic lines. We bent to look and could feel the cool air on our faces.

The current temp in the server room was probably around 75 degrees or so—a bit warm for a light jacket. Server technology has improved to enable servers to run a bit warmer, so the company is letting the temperature get a little warmer here than in the past. However, he said, since their goal is redundancy and high availability, the company would rather run servers a little cooler than a company whose goal was saving money at all costs.

It seemed to me that everything is a delicate balance really—having just enough redundancy to enable high availability without being so costly as to cancel out any financial benefit to being highly available.

We passed rows of black wire cabinets in which various numbers of servers on racks resided. Each cabinet was a company, the operations manager said. I thought of multi-tenant hosting, especially in my area, where hosted SharePoint is a growing phenomenon.

He also pointed out the white metal ceiling-high cages enclosing some rows of black cabinets and said those were also individual companies. The white cages were locked and access allowed only by permission, whether the company only had access or the data center employees had access too. I thought of dedicated hosting. So this was what it looked like, literally.

Report from a Data Center: Part 1, Getting in thedoor
Report from a Data Center: Part 3, Green is not yet green


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