Data Centers: 'You've Come a Long Way, Baby!'

From prehistoric and pre-Internet days to today's completely networked world, the data center has evolved quickly and exponentially over the past decades.

Karen Riccio

January 16, 2020

5 Min Read
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Some of you may remember the Virginia Slims commercial back in 1968 with the tagline, "You've come a long way baby." It was used to capture the spirit of the women's liberation movement and how far the, uh, "smarter" sex had come.

Well, I know I'm dating myself, but I remember it quite vividly. And that's the first phrase that came to mind as I sat down to write about the last 40 years of data center history--of which AFCOM and Data Center World have played an integral role.

We've been here before the Internet, during its (r)evolution, and today as data center managers try to manage more data than ever and battle the many unforeseen consequences of a completely networked world.

We were there when the world braced for Armageddon when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. As doomsayers withdrew cash from ATMs, others stockpiled food and water and sought refuge underground as Y2K approached. But data center managers didn't blink an eye. As editor of Data Center Management magazine (now The AFCOM Journal) back then, I interviewed AFCOM members months prior to the event, and none were in the least bit worried. Turns out, they were right not to be. Aside from a few blips, the world continued to turn, and the sun rose that New Year's Day.

But always in search of the next crisis to attract eyeballs, many news sources have been calling out a glitch with GPS units that could cause them to stop working on April 6. Named the GPS Week Number Count Rollover event, one security expert attending the RSA 2019 Conference was quoted by TechGenix as saying he’s “not going to be flying on April 6” because of the potential impact the event could have on airliners, which depend heavily on GPS for navigation.

According to TechGenix, ordinary users of GPS devices that are a decade or older should check whether the manufacturer has released any firmware updates to address this problem. Newer handheld GPS devices probably won’t be affected by the GPS week number rollover event happening on April 6 — that’s the good news.

However, it's a different story for managers of enterprise networks, especially if this involves critical infrastructure for government or industry, according to the company. "If that's the case, you should start by determining which parts, if any, of your infrastructure may depend upon GPS for reliable operation. Then analyze how your infrastructure could be impacted by GPS timing failure caused by the rollover event. You probably also want to contact your GPS appliance vendor to determine any potential issues with their devices concerning the rollover event."

Will April 6 be a non-event like Y2K? Only time will tell.

A Bit of History

Technology: Can't live with it, can't live without it. Just like an infant's behavior that changes as soon as we figure it out, technology’s evolutions can be just as frustrating despite all the good it brings.

Here's a look at key events during the last 40 years in the data center industry.

Just as computers, phones, and everything else in our world have made advancements over the years, so have data centers. As you know, they were restricted by server space and provided enough room for hardware and gigantic mainframe computers to be stored. But after the invention of the Intel 4004 processor in the 1970s and the first LAN, the next 40 years brought exponential and rapid change.

Launched in 1982, the first personal computer, the IBM model 5150, would allow organizations to use desktop computers that were cheaper and easier to cool than mainframes. Hardly the micro-processors in use today, the advent of the PC paved the way for the microcomputer industry.

As microcomputers worked as servers and filled old mainframe storage rooms in the 1990s, an infant version of the Internet wowed the universe. It ultimately required faster internet connections and increased online presence and network connectivity as a business requirement. To meet increased demands, new, larger scale, enterprise server rooms were built with data centers that contained hundreds or thousands of servers working around-the-clock. In the late 1990s, virtualization technology originally introduced in the '80s was revisited with a new purpose in the form of a virtual workstation, which was comparable to a virtual PC.

By the early 2000s, PCs and data centers had grown exponentially. New technology was quickly emerging to allow data to be transmitted easier and faster. The first cloud-based services were launched by Amazon Web services, which included storage, web services, and computation. There was also a growing realization of the power required to run all these data centers, so new innovations were being introduced to help data centers be more energy efficient. In 2007, the modular data center was launched. One of the most popular was from Sun Microsystems, which had 280 servers in a 20-foot shipping container that could be sent anywhere in the world. This offered a more cost-effective way for corporate computing, but also refocused the industry on virtualization and ways to consolidate servers.

By the 2010s, the Internet had become ingrained in every part of day-to-day life and business operations. Facebook was a main player and began investing resources in trying to find ways to make data centers more cost and energy efficient across the industry. Plus, virtual data centers were common in almost three-quarters of organizations, and more than one-third of businesses were using the cloud. The focus then shifted to software-as-a-service (SaaS), with subscription and capacity-on-demand being the main focus, instead of infrastructure, software, and hardware. This model increased the need for bandwidth and the advancement of new players in the data center space providing access to cloud-based data centers, including Amazon and Google.

And, here we are in 2020--with nothing but change as a definite in the data center industry. “You’ve come a long way baby.”

If you've been in the data center industry for a good chunk of the past 40 years, I'd love for you to share any trials and tribulations you've experienced over the decades. Email me at [email protected].

Karen Riccio is editor of AFCOM's quarterly journal and weekly newsletter. She has worked as a technology journalist for more than 20 years, dating back to 1990.

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