What would it mean if Apple wanted to take all the songs in all the iTunes libraries sitting on all the hard drives of its users and host them in the cloud? It would probably require Apple to build an enormous data center to house the operation. There are widespread reports that Apple is contemplating such a shift.
As it happens, Apple is also building a major new data center in Maiden, North Carolina that will span 500,000 square feet. The enormity of the new facility - which will be nearly five times the size of the company's 109,000 square foot Newark, Calif. data center - has raised questions about Apple's ambitions. Why would it need all that data center space?
A Shift to the Cloud?
I discussed this question in an August interview with Leander Kahney at the Cult of Mac blog. A recap: The most interesting question is whether Apple needs a much larger facility to support growth in its existing services, or is scaling up capacity for future offerings. One of the leading theories about the size of the NC project is that Apple is planning future cloud computing services that will require lots of data center storage.
This fits neatly with Apple's purchase last week of the streaming music service LaLa. The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is planning to "reboot" its iTunes service as a browser-based service that would allow users to stream their music from anywhere.
"The shift to cloud-based music won’t be instant, and may never be total," notes an analysis at GigaOm. "But a smartly integrated way of giving consumers access to their existing MP3 libraries side-by-side with a new streaming option is very attractive. Lala knew this, and Apple can deliver it."
Is Video Part of the Story?
Wired believes video looms large in Apple's ambitions. "All these recent developments point to a significant new strategic market for Apple: personal broadcasting, or sharing personal experiences," writes Brian Chen. "YouTube and Flip are already big players in this young space, and the logical competitive move for Apple is to make personal media deliverable and accessible anytime, anywhere."
This shift in the iTunes model would mean a change in Apple's data storage requirements - hence the huge scaling up of its data center platform. A de-duplicated iTunes storage hub serving music from a central repository might not require much additional space.
Apple Set to Scale Up
But video is a different matter. Users of YouTube upload 20 hours of video content every minute. That may be why Apple hired Olivier Sanche to run its data center operations. Olivier previously ran the data center infrastructure at eBay, one of the leading examples of massive scalability.
If Apple is really planning a push into online video, we'll hear about more huge data center projects soon. Here's why: A centrally hosted iTunes would create the potential for the Mother of All Downtime Events - a data center outage that leaves the world's iTunes users unable to access their music.
In terms of actual impact, an online music outage would rank low on most industry lists of worst-case data center failure scenarios. But an iTunes data center crash would be a huge public relations nightmare, generating a tidal wave of digital complaining via blogs and tweets.
A single point of failure will not suffice. If the speculation about Apple's cloud ambitions are correct, there are more huge data centers to come.