What do these two things have in common?

While a data center is beginning to look more like a "factory", why do they still act different?

What makes data centers so special?

Data centers are quickly becoming the “factories” of the 21st century, as the backbone of the internet and will be soon booming with the coming age of the internet of things.  We at ABB, we’re very well poised to take advantage of all of this opportunity through our industry initiative.

The question, then, is why don’t they behave as traditional process industries do?  Some of the elements, at first glance, appear similar, need for constant throughput, severe economic penalties if production is disrupted, optimization of the process(es), and larger scale leading to greater efficiency.

Conundrum of Diesel?

One of the glaring differences, which was brought to my attention recently, is the need for longer term alternate power.  A typical 10 MW pharmaceutical plant, I was told, may have 1 MW (~10 %) of standby diesel generation (or similar) on site.  A data center of the same size may have 100 % back up generation on site for the processes and in many cases even more than that for redundancy and maintenance strategy.  I just imagine 10 MW of diesel generators belching black smoke into the sky over your favorite internet company’s data center.  This doesn’t square well with the “green” image many IT and data center clients are pursuing, does it?

The nuclear Navy

Many of the best practices of data center operations have evolved from a very specific place, maintenance procedures employed by the US Navy for their submarines.  A nuclear submarine goes on a tour of 6 months or even more, without the ability to return to port or in many cases even surface for extended periods.  It’s critical to have the right supplies on board for nearly all conceivable catastrophes.  I’ve been on data center tours, even in Europe and Asia, where the “crash carts” (carts holding supplies for repairs) in the equipment rooms have names like the USS Pennsylvania after the submarines they’re inspired from.  This particular self-reliance is a key difference in how data centers have evolved versus similar process industries.   Some of the criteria for the tier levels seem to be directly descended from this ethos (like the 72 hours of back up power on site).

Batch vs continuous

Another thing that occurred to me while considering the differences was the notion that a typical pharmaceutical or semiconductor or other process industry can sometimes be defined in terms of a batch process.  In semiconductors, for example, the silicon ingots are grown to a certain size, then the process is repeated, so there is a natural break in the process that isn’t there in most data centers.  I think in some cases, think of a financial transaction, if it’s after trading hours in NY, for example, there might be an opportunity to have a sort of natural break which may lead to an opportunity to “lighten” the infrastructure.  Of course, the migration to the cloud could also involve a non-geographically dependent infrastructure that, too, could lead to less use of diesel generators.

Final thoughts

I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the reason that data centers are different is just that, they’re different.  They don’t come from the industrial heritage as the “rest” of the process industry does, and as such, they have been built on their own traditions.  We at ABB are focusing on some of the large “hyperscale” players, and they’re looking to us to help them understand how problems are solved in different industry that could be applied to their sites.  One thing that may explain a portion of this, is that it may be easier to locate the critical part of the process in an industrial environment, thus isolating the crucial circuit.  In a data center, almost any one of 10,000 plus servers may have that critical transaction, which results in overprovisioning of diesel.  With the advent of smarter power devices and advanced data center automation this may change.  Eventually, there will be less need for and dependence on diesel gensets for long term backup power and we’ll see the data centers revert towards the means of the 10% genset capacity we see in the above pharmaceutical plants.  In the meantime, what an interesting topic for discussion with clients, when many of us have vast industrial experience.

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