The Apple Data Center FAQ, Part 3

We continue with The Apple Data Center FAQ.

The late Steve Jobs unveiled images of Apple's new North Carolina data center when he announced the iCloud service in June 2011.

What Technology Does Apple Use in Its Data Centers?

Here's an overview of some of the additional design features Apple has disclosed over the years about its Maiden data center facility:

  • Apple uses a “free cooling” system that employs water-side economization, in which cool outside air is incorporated into a heat exchanger to supply cold water for the data center cooling systems. The company estimates that it uses the economizer system for about 75 percent of the year.
  • When it is too warm to use the economizer, Apple uses a chiller, a large system that refrigerates water for use in cooling servers. It also uses a chilled water storage tank to reduce its power bill by running the chillers at off-peak hours, when electricity rates are cheaper. Chilled water from the storage tank can then be used during peak hours, reducing the overall energy cost.
  • Apple says it is using a high-voltage power distribution system, which increases efficiency by reducing power losses due to conversions to step the power down within the data center. Similar designs have been used by Google and Facebook in their data centers.
  • Apple is using containment “pods” in which airflow is regulated using variable speed fans, allowing the company to closely match the fan speed to the temperature and pressure inside the containment area.

The below image shows large data warehousing devices from Teradata, which leverage solid state disks to accelerate data transfer. In an analysis of the images, Stephen Foskett wrote that Apple also appears to be using HP ProLiant servers and several types of storage equipment from NetApp.

An image from a presentation by Apple CEO Steve Jobs showing storage units inside the new Apple data center in North Carolina (Source: Apple)

What's Apple's Next Priority?

Dubbed Project McQueen, this is Apple's strategy for weaning off third-party cloud providers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft in favor of its own infrastructure. Apple currently relies on AWS and Microsoft's Azure for its content serving needs, including data-intensive products like iTunes and iCloud. The massive user base of iTunes and its various music, video and app storefronts services around 780 million active iCloud accounts worldwide.

Apparently, the iPhone maker is not pleased with Amazon's ability to quickly expedite photo and video requests from iOS devices. Plus, Apple wants to bring iTunes under one roof. Currently, third-party services handle a majority of iTunes' data needs, with Azure being the primary provider.

Instead of sinking capital into infrastructure owned and operated by outside firms, Apple is now mulling a buildout of its own. To that end, the company has purchased plots of land in China and Hong Kong for future data centers, according to AppleInsider. Aside from the financial benefits, Apple would be able to optimize its data centers to suit customer needs, resulting in an improved user experience.

It is unclear when Apple plans to announce or break ground on the supposed data centers. Reports claim the company struck a multi-year deal with Google Cloud Platform worth between $400 and $600 million, though the partnership could prove a stopgap until Project McQueen goes online.