Call it the Data Centre Land Grab of 2007. Big-name companies like Microsoft, Google and HSBC have already ponied up hundreds of millions of dollars this year to stake their claim to acres of land across the country, their first step toward building state-of-the-art, next-generation data centres.
These behemoths are not alone.
"Data centres are the fastest growing sector of site selection in the technology industry. I've never seen this much growth," says John Boyd, president of Princeton, New Jersey-based The Boyd Co. and a 32-year veteran of the location scouting market.
Boyd says two factors are primarily responsible: an onslaught of compliance mandates that require better handling and storage of data and a swell in government pressure to make data centres more energy efficient.
Microsoft last month announced it would spend $US550 million for a 44-acre lot to build a 37,000 square metre, two-building data centre in San Antonio. Meanwhile, Google announced it would build a $600 million facility in Lenoir, North Carolina, and a $750 million data centre in Goose Creek, South Carolina. For its part, HSBC North America also has big data centre plans -- a $166 million project in Buffalo.
Much of the rest of IT is set to follow suit. In a 2005 AFCOM study of the organization's 3000 data centre members, more than 60 percent of the respondents said they plan to expand the physical footprint of their data centres within 10 years.
Rakesh Kumar, an analyst at Gartner, says he's not surprised by this flurry of activity. "Many large enterprises either are running out of space or they have space that can't accommodate the needs of the newer technology. That means today's data centres are functionally obsolete," he says.
He points to the power and cooling demands of data centre darlings like blade servers. "They require more energy and cooling than older data centres can accommodate," he says. Blade racks are supposed to accommodate up to a hundred individual blade servers, but the limitations of older data centre infrastructure, such as electrical and HVAC systems, often force IT crews to dramatically decrease that number. "Instead, they are putting only 20 blades in a rack," Kumar says.
Throwing out the old
A big reason for the land grab is the enormous expense of trying to retrofit today's data centres with more efficient facilities infrastructure.
"A lot of organizations are going through cost-driven consolidation to reduce the number of data centres they might have. The one big data centre they end up with has to accommodate all the storage, servers, etc.," Kumar says.
But most data centres can't accommodate that type of setup, and it's often much more cost effective to move rather than try to retrofit. "You'll need a high level of voltage coming in to provide a high amount of energy to the rack. You may need to rip out air conditioners and put in chilled liquid cooling. To do this once you've got everything going is incredibly expensive," he says.
It's also highly disruptive to the workflow. "To bring up floors and lay piping while operations are running -- it would take a brave CIO to justify that project," he says. Robert McFarlane, a principal at Shen Milsom and Wilke, a technology consulting firm in New York, agrees that most data centre projects should be started from scratch.
"The data centre has been designed and built using the same techniques and practices that have been used for the past 20 to 25 years. We didn't know any better and there wasn't anything else to use. Now we've got big problems such as tremendous heat and power densities. Just retrofitting these data centres doesn't take advantage of what's available today to deal with these issues," he says.
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