XMission's Company Journal

Data Centers: A Dramatically Changing Industry

NOTE: I wrote the following while preparing to be on a panel discussion at the University of Utah recently regarding the data center industry.


The data center and telecommunications industry is a dynamic, even mercurial, industry full of change, opportunity, and often unpredictable challenges. I’ve worked in this industry for 17 years and thought it might be helpful to provide some historical perspective to give you an idea of the ever changing field you are moving into.

Waaaay Back
When I started at XMission in 1996 we had 2 T1s to service our entire infrastructure and user base. Just three Megabits (mbps) for web hosting, Usenet (anyone remember Usenet?), email, something called “dial-up,” and so forth. We downloaded Slackware Linux onto floppy discs and took countless hours, if not days, compiling a new kernel. We ran Solaris on Sun hardware for our servers. We were cutting edge at the time. Moving ahead, we eventually setup a spare room in our office to lease space to businesses that wanted to house servers on site for their web sites.

Plan for growth
Over time, we installed a generator in our basement with a 10 kVA UPS providing conditioning and battery backup for our entire infrastructure. By the late 90s our exponential growth caused us to look into building a proper data center and we leased the former battery factory for trolley cars adjacent to our offices. I oversaw the extensive planning and renovation of the old concrete building into a modern facility, which took nearly a year from planning to implementation.

Prepare for the Unforeseeable
Anticipate for the unexpected, regarding both industry changes and catastrophic events. We fretted over projections regarding future consumption of watts per sq foot, which was under 50 at the time. Under 50! We figured that it might go as high as perhaps 200 eventually, overestimating just to play it safe in regards to power density and heat ejection. Over the course of construction, we outgrew the 15 KW natural gas genset in our basement and rented a 25 KW generator on a trailer we parked in the alley behind our offices. A month later, a tornado tore through downtown Salt Lake causing a black out. Fortunately, our genset automatically handled things and kept XMission running while many other Internet providers went dark. A tornado in Salt Lake? Plan for the unexpected, mitigate potential threats whenever feasible. You just plain can’t see into the future so make your best guess instead.

The technology marketplace has the shelf life of a banana. The day before we opened, in the Spring of 2001, we sponsored what at the time was a huge LAN party in the data center with perhaps 100 nerds in attendance. We shared our fat pipe (a 45 Mbps T3) and showed off the new facility. We played Quake on huge CRT monitors. It was an awesome party and we had no idea that the dot-com bubble trouble would have such a long term and far reaching effect on our industry. Unlike many competitors in the colocation industry though, we had already had colocation customers before we opened. As well, we had chosen to build out the facility in a modular way instead of borrow vast sums to complete it. We also had tens of thousands of customers to help subsidize the lull, which lasted until 1996 and then boomed. Most of the competition in town had by then closed up shop so we experienced phenomenal growth for the next couple of years in particular. Plan to account for changes in the market, both in regards to your employer and your own career.

This industry is volatile, both within the marketplace and from a technological standpoint. Over time, we engineered hot and cold aisles. Such a sensible thing did not exist in 2001. We created separate A and B buses within our power infrastructure to provide redundancy there too, from the redundant transfer switches and generators, to the UPS’ and circuits feeding equipment. Over 3 years ago, we built a cloud hosting product called Stackable, foreseeing the advantages virtualization and other technologies offered. Abstract layers to solve problems and simplify products for end users. Think of where virtualization and miniaturization might take us in another 5-10 years. It’s exciting and you’d better be prepared to take advantage of it.

Data centers consume vast amounts of energy and it behooves us to not only innovate to save money through efficiencies there but in order to be “greener” citizens on space ship earth. Over 5 years ago, we added a hot air return plenum to improve our delta T, and by extension our PUE. For years now we’ve purchased Renewable Energy Credits to offset our carbon footprint and encourage sustainable energy programs. This Fall, we are upgrading to an energy efficient water chiller on our roof to replace our current dry coolers. We are also containing the hot aisles and installing a 25 KW solar panel array above our offices. Only a few years ago, solar panels didn’t make sense. Now it’s ridiculous not to consider them as part of your power infrastructure.

Disruption is good. It keeps things interesting and challenges us to not only continue to learn but also approach things with a creative perspective. You’ll need to sometimes figure out your own solutions because the problems you run into are too new to be in a text book. It keeps things interesting.

Grant Sperry
XMission VP of Operations

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