Server Farms Get Super-Sized for Cloud Growth

The server farms powering the Internet are getting super-sized, as demand for cloud services prompts technology companies to build larger and larger data center campuses.

Rich Miller

April 21, 2014

3 Min Read
Microsoft cloud servers
One of the ways Microsoft supports its cloud servers is packing them in ITPAC modules which can be deployed quickly to expand capacity in any location (Photo: Microsoft)

The server farms powering the Internet are getting super-sized, as demand for cloud services prompts technology companies to build larger and larger data center campuses. The trend is exemplified by three new projects that reflect the breadth of the new data center geography.

Equinix has filed plans to build 1.16 million square feet of data center space in the heart of "Data Center Alley" in Ashburn, Virginia, a colossal expansion of its role as the primary gatekeeper of the Internet's busiest intersection. Meanwhile, out in the heartlands of Iowa, Microsoft is planning a 1.2 million square foot campus, a huge cloud campus taking advantage of the Des Moines area's plentiful supply of cheap land and power. And within sight of the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip, Switch has begun work on a third SuperNAP, a massive 600,000 square foot data center that will boost its SuperNAP campus to more than 1.3 million square feet.

Data center development is reaching unprecedented scale, while illustrating the diverse geography of massive cloud platforms. Equinix, Microsoft, Switch, Google, Facebook, Apple and other cloud builders are all investing in the belief that the infrastructure for cloud computing will be concentrated in huge, multi-building campuses built atop abundant supplies of fiber and power.

Ultra-Scale Becomes Business as Usual

This reflects a growing school of thought that these "ultra-scale" developments are the best way for data center developers to manage the costs of building Internet infrastructure.

Why are companies building bigger campuses? There are several reasons. One is the expectation that the shift to a digital economy will continue to drive demand for larger and larger amounts of data center space. Internet delivery of media content has transformed the economics of the news and music industries, and similar shifts are underway in consumption of books, TV and movies.

And then there's cloud computing. While debates continue about the pace of adoption for cloud services, there's growing acceptance that cloud services will eventually shift a large volume of IT workloads from in-house server rooms to third-party facilities operated by data center specialists.

Then there's data center economics. Building big allows data center operators to realize economies of scale that can dramatically slash the cost of construction. The key financial metric for data center construction is now "cost per megawatt," reflecting the primacy of power in facility capacity and the structure of leases.

Designing for Repeatability

Finally, there's data center design, where the wide-open "barn" layouts of the dot-com boom have yielded to smaller pod architectures and modular data centers. The focus on smaller spaces provides greater flexibility, but also allows data center builders to standardize many elements of the process, enabling an “industrialization” of data center design. Companies conserve capital by building large footprints in repeatable phases. This has been a focus for multi-tenant developers like Digital Realty Trust, DuPont Fabros Technology, Equinix and Switch who gradually build out mission-critical environments that must work for a wide range of customers.

Digital Realty, for example, can lower costs in its supply chain through volume orders of components like generators, and also have a “buffer inventory” of critical items with long delivery timeline.

For more on the trends in data center scale, and how they are altering the cloud computing landscape, see our earlier analysis on this topic:

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