What the cloud actually looks like

Notes from my tour of a data center

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Credit: TierPoint

I like going on tours of data centers – it’s always fun to see what “the cloud” actually looks like in person.

Recently, I had the opportunity to tour a 120,00 square-foot facility in Marlborough, MA operated by TierPoint, a mid-size cloud, managed services and co-location provider headquartered in Missouri but with an increasing cadre of data center footprints around the country.

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I’ve been in some impressive data centers – most notably the Switch SuperNAP facility in Las Vegas. Machine-gun wielding security officers guarded the entrance to that 2.3 million square-foot facility while futuristic red and blue lights created the feeling of another world when you step in.

TierPoint’s facility is much more modest, yet impressive in its own way. Upon entering the building, which is located just off of Interstate 495, customers are greeted by a security guard who watches them swipe a badge, and then entrants hold their head up to an eye scanning machine for multi-factor authentication. Non-members provide photo identification to gain access through a revolving door into the building.

The facility is a sprawling single-story structure that has about 40,000 square feet of actual data center space. The rest of the campus is made up rooms ready to be converted into data center pods, while other parts house rooms that are used as backup office space for customers in case of emergency. The rooms include offices, and rows of telephones and computers for call center employees or financial traders whose main offices are struck by a disaster.

The meat and potatoes of the facility are the rooms where racks of servers are kept - called pods. Each pod is between 6,000 and 12,000 square feet. The temperature, humidity and access to each is carefully controlled by a central security and operations team staffed 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.

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Three generators outside the TierPoint data center in Marlborough, MA

To enter the room, a badge scan is required, and then there are steps leading up to the raised floor of the room. There’s ten feet of clearance above the ceiling of the pod for air circulation. The first thing I notice in the pods are the white flooring, ceiling and walls, along with black caged fencing scattered throughout each one. Each individual customer has its own allocation of square footage, which is marked by the wire cage. To gain access inside the cage where the actual server boxes sit requires at least a key, and depending on the customer, maybe a finger print or another iris eye scan.

Each pod has its own power management system, plus a backup. There are fire suppression systems throughout the facility, but there is no water in any of the pods. For water to fill the sprinkler hoses at least two indications of a fire must be detected, then the sprinkler will only activate in the specific area where the fire is detected to minimize water damage. A constant hum of cool air being circulated throughout the room can be heard, making small talk difficult on a tour.

Adjacent to the pod rooms is another room that houses three massive centrifugal chillers, each one responsible for cooling 400 tons of water, which is then used to cool air that is circulated through the pods to maintain a constant temperature. In total there are six centrifuges on site. Though there are three machines in each cluster, one is always on standby in case another one encounters a problem.

Another room houses racks and racks of batteries, which are kept fully charged as backup power. This room is the main intake of the 10 megawatts (MW) of power that’s fed into the facility by National Grid. Another 9 MW of power is held as backup at all times at the campus, with the ability to scale up to 12 MW if needed.

The sheer scale of these data centers is impressive, as well as all the equipment needed to run it and security that goes along with it. TierPoint has spent about $40 million over the past three years to build out this campus, and it’s expanding. It’s one of 14 campuses owned by TierPoint. After TierPoint’s planned acquisition of Windstream Hosted Solutions, TierPoint will have 28 data centers in 19 markets.

When people ask me questions like, can they run mission-critical workloads in the cloud, after touring a data center campus like TierPoint’s, it’s hard to say no.

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