Data Centers investigate

Apple's gigantic new data center foreshadows a cloudy future

Apple is about to start construction on what will be one of the world's largest data centers. The project is so big that it begs the question of whether Apple is simply planning for the growth of its current services or if it has bigger plans in the works.

We've heard about Google, Microsoft, and Amazon going on a data center building spree. It's one of the worst kept secrets in the technology business -- even though all three attempt to be as discreet about it as possible. Nevertheless, it makes perfect sense for them. Their cards are on the table. We know they plan to invest heavily in Web-based services over the next decade.

On the other hand, reports that Apple is about to break ground on a new data center in Maiden, North Carolina that is even bigger than the behemoths being built by Microsoft, Google, and Amazon is startling, to say the least. Let's take a look at what we know about Apple's new data center and speculate on what Apple might be planning for it.

Apple's east cost IT hub

On his Cult of the Mac blog, Leander Kahney has a good interview with Rich Miller from Data Center Knowledge about Apple's big plans in North Carolina. Here's what we know so far:

  • Location: Town of Maiden in western North Carolina, 40 miles northwest of Charlotte
  • Size: 500,000 square feet on roughly 200 acres of land
  • Purpose: Will serve ostensibly as Apple's east coast IT hub, with it's west coast hub in Newark, CA (109,000 square feet)
  • Timing: Expected to break ground with bulldozers in mid-August
  • Cost: $1 billion over 10 years
  • Staff: 50 full-time employees
  • Bandwidth: Dual fiber lines
  • Cost of electricity: 4-5 cents per kilowatt hour from Duke Energy (vs. 7-12 cents per kilowatt hour in California)
  • Alternate location: Virginia lost the bidding war with North Carolina over tax breaks and electricity costs

Miller said:

"The early site plans indicate Apple is planning about 500,000 square feet of data center space in a single building. That would place it among the largest data centers in the world. For comparison purposes, Apple's existing data center in Newark, California is a little more than 100,000 square feet. Most new stand-alone enterprise data centers are in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 square feet. So this would qualify as a big-ass data center."

The only other data centers that are on this scale are Microsoft's new Chicago data center, the Phoenix ONE data center, and the SuperNAP data center in Las Vegas. All three of those have a little over 400,000 square feet of space dedicated to data center use.

Miller also added, "The companies that are building the biggest data centers tend to also have the biggest cloud ambitions."

An Apple-shaped cloud?

So the natural question is what Apple plans to do with all of this data center space? The fact that the new data center is likely to be five times larger than Apple's west coast data center is the most curious part. It makes sense for Apple to have bi-coastal data center redundancy and to plan for growth in its online services (MobileMe, App Store, iTunes Music Store), but that alone will not consume enough storage and server cycles to justify a tripling or quadrupling of Apple's data center capacity.

Thus, a build-out with this kind of scale suggests that Apple has bigger plans in the works. Here are what I consider to be the four most logical possibilities:

  1. Video library expansion: Apple has already started renting and selling movies and TV shows on-demand via iTunes. The online rental business is set to explode over the next five years, so Apple probably sees a ton of opportunity here. However, video is a resource hog in storage and CPU cycles so a significant upgrade in capacity would make sense if Apple is moving in this direction.
  2. Online document storage: With iDisk and MobileMe, Apple has already dabbled in online storage for end users. Google is expected to blow this open any day now (and has been for years), but Apple may see an opportunity to provide Macs, iPods, and iPhones with some basic online storage capability (with the option to purchase more) to greatly simplify storage, transfers, and backups for users. This could also come into play with the long-rumored Apple tablet, which would likely have minimal local storage and might need a cloud storage option for archiving a library of songs, videos, or files.
  3. Web-based software suites: Most of the Web-based applications currently available are still very rudimentary. However, there are signs that more powerful apps are coming. Adobe's online version of Photoshop is slick. The forthcoming Web version of Microsoft Office is very powerful. With advanced Javascript and AJAX, the tools are now there for more sophisticated cloud-based apps. For Apple, that could mean that it's time to take its iLife and iWork suites and turn them into Web-based applications that expand even beyond the Mac, and even beyond the PC, to smartphones.
  4. Digital library build-out: One of the possibilities for Apple's rumored tablet device is that it's meant to primarily be a reading device. That means not only reading Web sites and blogs, but magazines and books as well. If that's the case, Apple may be preparing for a massive a build-out of a digital content library that it would peddle through iTunes. In some ways, this has already started with the books and magazines now being sold through the iPhone App Store thanks to new capabilities in the iPhone 3.0 software.

The most likely scenario is the video expansion. However, the digital library buildout would be the most revolutionary concept, so that night be a shiny object that Apple is chasing.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

45 comments
skimmilk8888
skimmilk8888

For users that use Photoshop to build their websites, Photoshop resources like brushes and gradients are often needed. Here is a site that has a large collection of free Photoshop resources: Free Photoshop. So far it has the largest collection of Photoshop brushes on the Web, about tens of thousands.

dkburkhart
dkburkhart

During the 90's, while Joel Birnbaum headed up HPLabs in Palo Alto, He invisioned computer centers that would act as UTILITIES. Providing services, applications, and content. It seems to me that this vision is now coming true as reality. Just a thought of interest.

pgit
pgit

The library of congress. Michigan made a good run for it. Too little, too early. Google merely broke the ice. Apple will eat DRM/copyright/IP\R\P for lunch. Google will need a new chef. http://www.scroogle.org/cgi-bin/scraper.htm

B Miller
B Miller

Microsoft's Data Center in San Antonio is ~ 470,000 SF so its larger than the Chicago facility mentioned in this article -- they're all big - but these few mentioned here are really big!

capek
capek

Seems to me that at a crude level, two things basically take space in a DC: storage and computation/servers. I don't know specific numbers, but it seems to me it should be pretty straightforward to work out estimates of how much storage and how much server capacity in terms of simultaneously connected sessions can be put in that space. How many simultaneously iTunes users, App store downloaders, etc can be supported per sq ft of DC space, including an allocation for router and communication capacity?

danab
danab

It may not be why they are doing it, but it will eventually lead to virtually all data being online and available to governments. Our lives will be micromanaged whether we want it or not.

Michael.T.Whitlock
Michael.T.Whitlock

The building and parking can fit on 25 acres of land -- easily! So what is Apple doing with the other 175 acres? Don't tell me the remaining land is to be used for landscaping and ambiance! Something is missing in the equation.

ybellavance
ybellavance

Maybe we are seeing a return to centralized computers, the original vision of IBM.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Although I am obviously not pro-cloud, I think there is money to be made in the Cloud, so it seems logical that companies with deep pockets should be investing in data centers. With Apple, I'd suspect an entirely different reason behind the decision to open an "east coast" DC - geographical DR and replication. I bet their current DC rides on or near a fault. Then, there is cost of living. The East Coast is the new Bangalore. Cheap, skilled, educated third-world States full of people willing to work for a 3rd of what it costs to employ a Californian. West Virginia is just waiting to bust out. :)

patrick_ongchangco
patrick_ongchangco

What could be used to power this Data Center? Xserves? Vtract storages?

nicholas
nicholas

If an acre equals 43,560 square feet (WikiAnswers), how does 500,000 square feet equal 200 acres? More like 11. Am I missing something?

bill.tkach
bill.tkach

Maybe they want to put Google Apps on their iTunes enabled devices. Or, perhaps, they just want to start "life recording" and have little video cameras that you attach just beside your ear, that tape your life for you. Apple either wants to collect the good bits, so they can sell those video's back to YouTube, copyright free, or they want to amalgamate all the video that they record into a recording of the perfect life, so maybe we can finally find out the meaning of life after all.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

that the big boys have been trying to sell? Offer me the chance at a decent device or software app to read a wide range of books on line at a reasonable cost say a buck a book, I'd snap your hand off. Offer me the chance to store my personal data on their server so they can mine it and sell it, and let the US government have it on demand. Start by snapping my hand off, with the the threat of greater physical damage in reserve....

RayL-NC
RayL-NC

I guess it is me, but I see that IT seems to breed micromanagement, and that is my own profession...

federico.alcantara
federico.alcantara

The other will be used for WHATEVER apple decided to use it for.

pboetzkes
pboetzkes

That massive air-conditioning load works more efficiently using ground water as a heat sink, rather than air-to-air.

josepht
josepht

The cost of living and thus the cost of wages would not be a factor for this kind of operation. According to the original article, they will be employing 50 people full time. The cost of wages for 50 people, even at West Coast rates is negligible compared to the overall cost of running that size datacenter.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Apple's California data center is 100K square feet. If this were just about DR and replication then the NC data center would be roughly the same (which is about the average size of a big standalone enterprise data center). However, Apple is building a 500K data center. So, assuming the first 100K is for DR and replication, what's Apple gonna do with the extra 400K? That's the question.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

the amount of land that the data center is being built on.

John_Baines
John_Baines

The land is 200 acres. The data center built on the land is 500K sq ft.

cmurray
cmurray

Is Apple seeking a top spot or the apex of cloud computing or the multimedia market? The latter goes along with i'this' and i'that'. Not so sure about cloud computing; too much competition and/or an uncertain trend!

Ollie J
Ollie J

I suppose it's easier for them to get you to voluntarily hand over all your important data to them rather than try to intercept it in transmission. Cloud storage worries me as it basically means someone else has direct access to all your data, you have to trust them not to abuse that......

Sarnath
Sarnath

May be, APple is getting into Real apple business.. They would plant some 10000 trees in 200 acres and sell the apples off... OR They could give apples to their employees as bonus as well... :-)

Leo
Leo

Lotsa space ... I'm guessing something in the entertainment business -- bigger better media-feeding.

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

In these times of terrorist attacks, is it wise to have so much data concentrated in one site? It may make economic sense, but is it politically wise, especially when the full details of the site including location and staff numbers are being broadcast? Personally, I shall not be trusting my data to the cloud. If the weather is going to be cloudy, it's often an indication of a coming storm. Is a cloudy future for data an indication of a coming storm?

CDMichaels
CDMichaels

Wow, great info but do you ever spell check? Keep up the good work.

bboyd
bboyd

With Obamacare on the table and medical data being one of his voice pet desires. I read into it a good chance to take a chunk of deficit money and spend into the future! Of course I'm just a paranoid detractor.

EliSko
EliSko

11 acres out of 200 is a relatively small physical plant in a large campus. And with 50 employees, it's not as if they need a huge parking lot. Why so much space? They must be reserving their options to expand the facility by an order of magnitude. THAT thought is REALLY awesome - imagine a dozen buildings, each the size of an airport terminal, and full of nothing but computers and a couple of hundred operators. (I assume that the staff of 50 covers all three shifts, and includes a couple of janitors, a handful of maintenance workers, and a dozen or more system techs to go with a couple of dozen sysops.)

lsasadoorian
lsasadoorian

Actually, this idea of losing control over one's data is not farfetched at all. I'm not a fearmonger, but I also don't like others have all the control over my information. And than who's data is it, mine or the company that stores it for me? And what if they decide to use portions of it; can I stop them? Cloud is the WOW thing right now, but there's an element of lost control that many aren't willing to look at. It gets in the way of the WOW.

cliveamcgregor
cliveamcgregor

The cloud will be like a placenta to which we will be hooked to and dependent on for the rest of our natural lives. It may eventually become the only way we can communicate, share ideas, do our shopping, entertainment..etc..etc. Once we hand over control of our data (and maybe our lives) to the cloud.. we may find our selves in the middle of a (government controlled) thunder storm from which there will be no respite. This may be a real or imagined threat...only time will tell

mdillender
mdillender

There used to be a bunch of power companies spread all over the US server very local markets, now we are down to a few. Electricity is a utility and so shall be computing and storage, just a natural progression. Reduce your IT Infrastructure team and host it all in a cloud where DR, backups are handled as part of the contract. Why wouldn't we do this? This allows IT to focus on the business, not on just pulling the lever day after day.

devolution23
devolution23

"these times of terrorist attacks"? WHAT terrorist attacks? there's been one in the last ten years. i think all the right-wing fearmongering is getting to you.

PATOPP
PATOPP

It's the last thing we read in the article so it is remembered. Maybe he was referring to a knight in shining armor? :-D jk, Jay

Brandon_Forest
Brandon_Forest

... and his desire to fund digitizing patient records is forward thinking, regardless of the cost. Obama knows that the Feds are already behind the times and wants to catch up. Microsoft not only has a data center online right now dedicated to a healthcare datawarehouse, but has provided a free SDK to any VAR who wants a piece of the action. Check out their HealthVault (http://www.healthvault.com) EMR initative, which they began back in 2006 or Google's competing initiative GoogleHelth (https://www.google.com/accounts/ServiceLogin?service=health). Of course Apple wants a piece of the pie. The stimulus package is just priming the pump. The money to be had hosting EMR will be huge within 5 to 10 years.

DataLib
DataLib

but not with the paranoia characterization. Centralized Electronic Health Records are coming, withor without Obama. If it's good enough for WalMart... and physicians do like their handhelds.

jdardis
jdardis

Ever been inside a purpose built data center? Very high security and having that much land surrounding it gives them a large buffer zone in case of a security breach. It also means that they have a lot more area to patrol. I work about 500 feet away from the entrance to a Google data center and the security there is very tight. Perimiter fence w/ barbed wire surrounding the entire compound. Security systems throughout so if someone even approaches the fences, they know and they respond quickly. Had a friend run out of gas near an access road off a highway by the data center and when his car pulled into the lil driveway he got swarmed by security. They basically try to take every extreme measure possible to keep your (read: their) data safe. Most data centers can operate fully off the grid (no outside utilities) for over a week too, which I thought was kinda cool.

Systems Guy
Systems Guy

Skynet by any other name is still Skynet.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

Saying there has only been one in 10 years is forgetting that the US is not the entire world. Terrorist attacks are going on all over the world. Gotta start thinking global.

EliSko
EliSko

You're right, there was ONE major terror attack on New York. And ONE major terror attack on London. And ONE major terror attack on Madrid. And.... you should get the idea; because God (or Allah?) knows that the Islamofascists DO get it.

paulie09
paulie09

maybe the "right-wing fearmongering" is the reason there has only been "one in the last ten years."

mwilliams
mwilliams

There is another component. Apple is sitting on circa $35B in cash, short term investments, and net receivables (plus negligible inventory) with only $14B in current liabilities and almost no debt. They have enough money to buy almost anything. The issue for them is to figure out what to buy that they can improve on. I have been rooting for them to buy Research In Motion ($45B or so) and take over the high end phone market entirely including business phones. But it would be rational for them to pick out some verticals where price margins are reasonably high, the market is interface and IT quality intensive, and where they could dominate. They could buy companies like MDRC ($2.3B), HLTH ($1.5B), or particularly MCK ($15B) and get a dominant position in the electronic medical records space.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Is releasing an iPhone client. Not that I have an inside track on this, but EPM and EMR is a minefield for both the medical field and the technical field. Dell tried this a few years ago as an early adopter, and crawled home with their tail between their legs. I'm not sure I see WalMart being any more successful at this. The problem is that IT professionals and developers do not understand the business process or regulation of the health-care industry well enough, and that Medical professionals have unrealistic expectations of well... jeeze, the fact that the entire universe revolves around them. But more specifically, of what technology can deliver and at what price. Mix up a bunch of anti-social, basement dwelling uber-nerds with a bunch of ultra-A type, perfectionists with egos the size of Texas, and you've got a recipe for dysfunction. Doctors do like to think they're special, and to that end, they *love* their Macs - and I consistently hear complaints that the current big EHR apps are NOT OS X oriented. Apple has already lost the opportunity to establish a lead in this industry. Microsoft based platforms are already well established. The arrival of Apple, unless they had a paradigm changing platform - would only cause incompatibilities and unsatisfied Docs. Unsatisfied Docs are not like regular users, who will "learn to deal with it". Apple will find out the hard way that it isn't worth the effort. They think Steve Jobs is a controlling A type A-hole? Wait until they dip their toes in an industry with guys who make Jobs look like a teddy-bear.