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A Look Inside U.S. Data Centers

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From Netflix to YouTube, and from Facebook to Twitter, people around the world enjoy content on the World Wide Web using sites that got their start—and make their electronic homes—in the United States. But few, if any, folks give serious consideration to the bustling, humming nerve centers that host this array of sites and content.

A Look Inside U.S. Data Centers

What Is a Data Center?

Data centers are the physical locations that hold the computers and other hardware that form the backbone of the vast, interconnected network we call "The Internet." As consumers of energy and other resources, few things can compare to the voracious appetite of the average data center.

In the United States, data centers take up nearly 10 million square meters of white space, and consume 11.55 gigawatts of power every year. (Fans of the Back to the Future series will note that this could power approximately nine of Doc Brown's time-traveling DeLoreans.)

Data Centers Are Energy Hogs

What's eating so much power and taking up all that space? Servers. The computers that fill the thousands of data centers across the U.S. are home not just to the resources for megasites like YouTube, Google, and Microsoft — the Redmond giant accounts for more than a million servers alone — but the media, websites, and other data for countless smaller business and personal sites.

Collectively, the U.S. accounts for a fair chunk of the nearly five million servers in use for business environments worldwide.

Data centers are a part of daily life for anyone who uses the Internet (albeit an indirect one for most). And while Internet titans like Google (as well as environmental experts) are actively encouraging folks to review their actual tech needs (and ditch their data centers in favor of more centralized solutions), it's likely these high-tech homes for our information and media will continue to play a critical part in our shared online experience for years to come.

A Look Inside US Data Centers

A Look Inside U.S. Data Centers

Digital files may not take up space in your home, but everything on the Internet does have a physical home, somewhere in the world. Data centers, essentially large networked hard drives connected to the Internet, house this data for you to access anywhere on the Internet, from anywhere in the world where a connection is available.

How Data Centers Work

Data Centers house servers that are interconnected.

  • Servers are essentially computers, without the peripherals
    • No monitor
    • No keyboard
    • No mouse
  • The servers connect to the Internet through a network connection, using an Internet Protocol (IP) address.
    • An IP address is a unique identifier for all computers connected to the Internet-your computer has one.
      • With IPv4, the Internet had a total of 4.3 billion unique addresses.
      • With IPv6, the Internet now has a total of 340 undecillion unique addresses.
        • That's 340 trillion trillion trillion unique addresses.
    • An IP address is:
      • Four numbers, each of which contains one to three digits, with a single dot (.) separating each number or set of digits.
      • Each of the four numbers can range from 0 to 255
        • Example:
    • IP addresses are either static or dynamic.
      • Static: Never change → Server IPs never change.
        • Reveal information such as:
          • Continent
          • Country
          • Region, and city in which a computer is located
          • Internet Service Provider (ISP) that services the particular computer
          • Technical details, including the precise location of the computer
      • Dynamic: Change periodically, are temporary assignments every time a computer connects to the Internet.
  • The information stored on the servers is broken into "packets" for transmission to your computer via the Internet.
  • The process is reversed when you upload information to a website.

Data Center Cost and Design

Data centers can be designed in nearly limitless configurations to suit the need of server demand.

  • Based on the 2013 U.S. National average:
    • A 1 story data center (16.5 feet in height) with 22,500 square feet floor space using brick veneer bearing walls costs:
      • Union Labor
        • $232.36/per square foot without contractor fees and overhead
        • $310.78/per square foot with fees and overhead
        • Total cost to build: $6,992,700
      • Non-Union Labor
        • $214.51/per square foot without contractor fees and overhead
        • $286.90/per square foot with fees and overhead
        • Total cost to build: $6,455,300
      • Hewlett-Packard's (HP) data centers show us some design options.
        • Their Wynyard data center, located in northeast England, features:
          • Sustainable design that incorporates rainwater into the cooling system,
          • Free air cooling system
        • Their Tulsa, OK data center uses:
          • A tornado proof, reflective roof.
          • A water cooling system that allows the center to run for eight hours without using a cooling plant.
      • Google's data centers, located throughout the world, use the following design techniques:
        • Servers are placed as closely to users as possible to deliver information quickly.
        • Servers are laid out to maximize the effectiveness of cooling systems.
          • In Belgium, Google uses a water cooling system that takes water from a nearby canal.
          • In Georgia, Google treats wastewater for use in their cooling system.
          • In Dublin, Ireland, Google uses a cooling system that uses outdoor air, rather than an internal system.
          • In Finland, both outdoor cool air and seawater are used to cool the data center.
        • Data centers are designed to use 50% less electricity to power the servers, compared to other data centers.
          • Global electricity use from Google's data centers represent 1 to 1.5% of the global electricity use from all data centers.
            • Google is responsible for about 0.01% of global electricity use.
          • In 2012, 34% of Google's energy use came from renewable sources.
            • 22% comes from renewable energy Google either purchases directly or produces itself.
            • 12% comes from sources already on the grid.
            • The remaining 68% is neutralized by carbon-offset projects.
        • Google uses their data centers to power their Chromium operating system (OS)
          • Computers running the Chrome OS have everything stored on the Internet, rather than the computer itself.
            • This allows for easy replacement if your PC breaks.

Essentials to Keep Them Running

For the Internet to function correctly, data centers need to be up and running all the time. To accomplish this, data centers need:

  • Security
    • To protect the equipment and the data stored on it, no security measure is overlooked.
      • Cameras are all over the inside and the outside of data centers.
      • Employee access is limited to certain areas.
      • Employees must use fingerprint identification to enter the building.
      • Security systems are in place to detect server movement based on vibration.
      • Areas are sectioned off to guard against attack on the building itself.
      • Security guards are on the premises 24/7 to limit access.
      • Doors only allow one person through at a time, to prevent unauthorized people from "sneaking" in.
      • Walls may be lined with Kevlar to add additional protection from the elements and attack.
  • Connectivity
    • Data centers must have a way to connect to the Internet.
    • Connectivity methods vary depending on the size and type of data center.
    • Data centers lease space to customers, and the customer chooses the data/connectivity they want.
      • Web hosting operates this way for you as a customer to have a place to put your website online.
    • As of July 2013, Microsoft has more than one million servers to provide their services.
      • That's less than Google, who had 900,000 in 2011.
      • Assuming each server costs ~$1,000 to run, that's at least a billion dollars per year, and not counting building the data centers themselves.
  • Heating/Cooling/Ventilation Systems
    • Servers must be kept at an optimum temperature to ensure they run smoothly and do not malfunction.
    • Air must move freely to keep the servers in pristine condition.
    • Many data centers use water cooling systems for their cost and efficiency.
  • Fire Protection
    • Millions of dollars worth of equipment sits in each data center.
    • Fire protection methods are implemented to prevent the building from catching fire, to protect the equipment and the data on it.
      • Employees must abide by strict protocol, such as not leaving a cardboard box near a server room.
      • Firewalls are built to prevent the spread of fire from room to room, so that if a fire does start, the damage is limited in scope.
      • Clean agent and inert gas systems are favored over water based sprinkler systems to avoid damage to equipment and electrocution risk.
  • Continuous Power
    • Utility power from national power grids will be fed into the building via multiple points from separate substations.
      • This provides separate power supplies if one is cut off.
    • An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) ensures power can be seamlessly switched to a secondary supply if the primary one fails.
      • Batteries
        • A German SAP data center uses block batteries in the building to power applications for 15 minutes.
          • That's enough time to start the generators.

How Many Servers Do Major Brands Use?

  • Checking your Facebook involves any one out of an estimate of 180,000 servers.
  • Those adorable kitten videos on YouTube you can't stop watching run on some of Google's 900,000 servers.
  • Using Amazon Cloud to stream music involves using one of an estimated 450,000 servers.
  • Playing Xbox One games with Xbox Live involves using one of 300,000 servers.
    • That's nearly the worldwide computing power available in 1999.


WhoIsHostingThis Team

About WhoIsHostingThis Team

Our writing team comes from all over the world with diverse backgrounds in the arts and sciences. But what links them is their passion for the internet. All together they represent many decades of experience working in all facets of it -- from programming and hardware creation to website design and marketing.


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