Data centers trigger visions of windowless, concrete boxes located at the periphery of suburban office parks. That perception may fade in the coming years. With new technologies, such as cloud computing, blockchain platforms, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, big data and mobile apps demanding instant access to data, the industry is seeing global growth and innovation, including “micro” centers closer to end users, underwater and floating data centers, “mega” centers and green data centers.
Google, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, eBay, Uber and Oracle are deploying unprecedented amounts of computer power and that is creating new challenges and opportunities, including with respect to electricity and cooling requirements. Facebook, for instance, has multiple mega data centers in Boden, Sweden (each over 300,000 sf), close to what is known as “The Node Pole,” an area above the Arctic Circle that derives all of its power from renewable sources. This, coupled with tax incentives from the Swedish government, has led to a rapid growth in data center construction in the area. Additionally, an abandoned mine in Norway is being used as a six-story vertical data center, where each level is large enough to host all of the servers in Norway. Microsoft recently tested a prototype of a data center that is fully submerged in the Pacific Ocean, using the surrounding water as a cooling mechanism. Apple is using wastewater treatment water instead of tap water to cool certain of its data center facilities, a change that is expected to save five million gallons of water per year. Google is using artificial intelligence to reduce energy consumption and artificial intelligence is being explored as a way to detect cyber attacks on data center infrastructure.
Businesses, governments and consumers alike are requiring on-demand access to data from the cloud. Older generation data centers focused primarily on the storage of information and disaster recovery. The focus today has shifted to immediate access to and processing of data with algorithms, which requires data centers to be more distributed and efficient, with faster inter-connections between service providers. For example, a new social network needs instant access to nearly unlimited computer resources on every continent through the use of cloud services. Efficient data center design and data center infrastructure management will be critical to keep these companies running smoothly. All trends favor a thriving market driven by rapidly increasing data traffic demands throughout the world. The global market for data centers is predicted to grow from around $15 billion in 2014 to $22 billion by 2019.
More locally, officials in Loudon County, Virginia, assert that up to 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic passes through the county and it has the largest collection of data centers in the United States. The area’s popularity is attributed to factors such as its proximity to the federal government, the high density of fiber, rare natural disasters and low commercial energy rates. The Virginia State Corporation Commission recently authorized Dominion Power, the local power company, to seize land through eminent domain to make room for 100-foot high towers carrying 230,000-volt power lines in neighboring Prince William Country to support two new warehouse-sized data center buildings for an Amazon subsidiary, which are necessary because data centers use enough electricity to light up at least 5,000 homes. Communities, however, complain about noise, stormwater drainage, lack of landscaping, the impact of high-voltage lines on residents and unsightly structures. As a result, the Northern Virginia counties most impacted—Fairfax, Loudon and Prince William—are adopting new rules and zoning ordinances governing data center construction.