Apple Unleashing the iDataCenter? Not Yet

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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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. I keep seeing people ask this but it doesn't make a lot of sense. First we are talking about a live video stream so why would you distribute it from a single data center? On top of that why would you distribute it from an east coast data center when the event is on the west coast? Second we are talking about the a new way of streaming that takes very little overhead, it is solely http so it is processed once and can be delivered very efficiently. My guess is that this stream will come from existing infrastructure or it will come from Akamai who has had support for this technology for a while now.

  2. Carson: Good point. I've updated the story to discuss Apple's CDN infrastructure, including reports that they may bring some CDN capablities in-house.

  3. Mikey Smalton

    I doubt this was the case. Why would they send live video across the country from SF to VA to encode/stream out to users? Doesn't make any sense whatsoever. And the stream url also clearly proved it was akamai

  4. A classic case of Halligan's Law of Inverse Clue** illustrated by Mr. Kahney. Tech bloggers are the new Kremlinologists, connecting random facts into outrageous hypotheses... which when subjected to rational thought make no sense whatsoever. ** "The more somebody blogs about technology, the less they actually know about it." -Michael Halligan, on 2/20/2010

  5. eas

    Those job listings don't seem all that helpful. Apple is a big, decades-old company. The are likely to have a variety of systems for finance and ERP functions, internal communications, external facing services, etc. Some of those systems will keep chugging away and evolving as needed. This datacenter is of a large enough scale that it probably has little or nothing to do with most of the products and technologies in that list. Indeed, it's big enough that it wouldn't be surprising if any of the services it will support will have a major reengineering before they are operating at the full capacity of the facility. Of course, it's likely that this will support some major new services as well, and those may well be built from the ground up to work at this scale.