Apple Unleashing the iDataCenter? Not Yet

Apple will live stream today's highly-anticipated new product announcements, reportedly to load-test the capabilities of its new 500,000 square foot data center in North Carolina.

Steve Jobs' keynotes have been a boon to technology blogs, but have historically wreaked havoc with uptime at MacWorldExpo and Twitter web sites. Perhaps not so much anymore. Apple announced last night that it would live stream video coverage of today's highly-anticipated product announcement (to Mac users, anyway).

Hmmm ... that sounds like that might require some serious infrastructure. Leander Kahney at Cult of Mac writes that today's webcast will be used to load test the capabilities of Apple's enormous new iDataCenter in North Carolina. "The broadcast will likely involve hundreds of thousands of simultaneous live video streams, maybe more," Leander writes, citing an Apple source who says the goal is to monitor traffic load and quality.

UPDATE: As it turns out, content delivery provider Akamai Technologies says it is delivering the live stream of the Apple event. For more on the role of CDNs and Apple's data center, read on.  

For those just joining the story: Apple's data center in Maiden, N.C. is expected to provide the back-end for a larger move into cloud computing, with most speculation focusing on a shift of iTunes music and video libraries from user desktops to online storage. The $1 billion data center will be about 500,000 square feet, nearly five times the size of Apple’s existing 109,000 square foot Newark, Calif. facility.

Live Stream Could Test Network Integration
Apple has said only that the facility will be operational by the end of 2010. When it comes to "load testing," the live stream could be most useful in providing Apple with information about updated networking configurations that integrate the new North Carolina facility. Apple has traditionally used content delivery networks (CDN) like Akamai and Limelight to distribute video closer to its users.

Streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn reported last year that Apple was planning to bring some of its CDN capabilities in-house. "Folks I have spoken to inside Apple told me that once the new data center is completed, Apple plans to have a more active role in doing their own content delivery," Rayburn wrote, noting a precedent. "While it's way to early to speculate what kind of content Apple will deliver and in what volume, this strategy is nearly identical to what we've seen Microsoft do over the years."

It should be noted that Microsoft's Edge Content Network includes caching equipment at dozens of sites around the world, rather than a single large data center. Apple's East-West "bi-coastal" data center setup more closely resembles Facebook, which serves photos and video to 500 million global users using a combination of CDNs and data center space in Virginia and Silicon Valley.

Infrastructure Tested During Commissioning
The live stream won't be a test of whether the data center works or not. That's sorted out in a process known as commissioning, in which engineers stress-test the power infrastructure using load banks that simulate the power usage of racks of servers. Full commissioning for a major data center can take a month or more.

Apple began hiring for the Maiden facility in March, and is expected to employ 50 workers upon completion. Here are some technical factoids gleaned from Apple's job postings:

  • Apple says that its "data center environment consists of MacOS X, IBM/AIX, Linux and SUN/Solaris systems."
  • The Maiden facility will have a "heavy emphasis" on high availability technologies, including IBM's HACMP and HAGEO solutions for high-availability clusters, Veritas Cluster Server, and Oracle's DataGuard and Real Application Clusters.
  • Job candidates are also asked to be familiar with storage systems using IBM, NetApp and Data Domain, and data warehousing systems from Teradata.
  • Networking positions require a familiarity with Brocade and Qlogic switches.

Facilities positions include no major surprises, requiring expertise in the maintenance and repair of chillers, cooling towers, heat exchangers, water treatment, pumps, and computer room air conditioning (CRAC) and air handling (CRAH) units. Applicants are asked to be familiar with building management systems, wiring of three-phase motors, and cooling systems using chilled water (meaning Apple won't be going "chiller-less" to save energy, as Google and Microsoft have done).

Apple's data center operations are overseen by Olivier Sanche, who previously directed data center construction projects for eBay, TelecityGroup and AT&T.

Here's a summary of our reporting on Apple's new facility:

How big is the iDataCenter? Check out this aerial video posted to YouTube. The video is brief (about 35 seconds), but provides an interesting perspective on the new facility:

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