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Cringley on Apple: The Math Needs Some Work

Robert X. Cringley asserts that Apple's iDataCenter is empty, and would hold 7.2 million servers if it was full. Alas, Cringley has extrapolated a single data point into a broad conclusion about a data center, and the analysis is doomed by flawed assumptions and bad math.

There's an old saying about computers: garbage in, garbage out. The saying applies to an analysis of the new Apple data center by tech columnist Robert X. Cringley, who asserts that the facility in Maiden, North Carolina is big enough to contain 7.2 million servers, but is basically empty.

"I drove over, took some pictures, and talked to folks at the convenience store down the road," Cringley writes. "My conclusions from this unscientific research is that the giant Apple facility is mainly empty. It’s a huge building filled more or less with nothing and why Apple built it that way frankly escapes me ... I think it’s a joke. The building is a near-empty facility built primarily to intimidate Apple competitors. And so far it seems to be working."

Wow. Did a well-known tech columnist just allege that Apple built an enormous fake data center? And, in essence, accuse Steve Jobs of modeling data center vaporware when he showed off pictures of server rooms filled with gear at the recent WWDC?

There are fair questions about why Apple has built at such enormous scale. But Cringley succumbs to a temptation that often strikes tech journalists: the urge to extrapolate a single data point into a broad conclusion about a data center. This usually involves either how many servers a facility can hold, or how much energy it uses. This process rarely turns out well, and Cringley's effort is no exception.

Cringley's estimate that the Apple facility could hold 7.2 million servers is based on the notion that Apple has 1 million square feet of space that can house racks of servers. The problem: The Apple data center is 500,000 square feet, not 1 million (a fact that has been widely reported). The equipment area - the only space that can actually hold racks - makes up just 184,000 square feet of that space, according to planning documents (See our Apple Data Center FAQ for more details).

Cringley also underestimates the amount of square feet required per rack, as noted by commenters from the industry. As a result, he wildly overshoots on his estimates of the number of servers and storage units Apple could house in the building. His conclusion that the building is empty is apparently based on seeing only one truck enter the facility over the course of an hour.

To be fair, Cringlely has a history of much better work on the data center sector, particularly his early scoop on Google's use of shipping containers to house servers.

Has Apple overbuilt? That's a better question. It has committed to spend $1 billion in North Carolina, but has nine years to do it - meaning the real answers to the questions about Apple's data center will be answered over time.

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