What is a Data Center?
A data center is a physical location – most commonly a building – that houses core IT and computing services and infrastructure. Put even more simply, a data center is a physical place to store and compute data.
Why data centers are important
Most businesses need to store data – whether it’s for their email, website, online transactions, etc. – and these can be stored on a server. Servers are like specialized computers and are connected to the business’s local network and usually to the Internet. If a business is small enough, they may choose to store their servers in-house and manage them on their own. However, as businesses and their demands grow – in other words, as more data is generated – the more servers and space for them is needed.
One option is to build a dedicated server room on-site, but this can be complicated to maintain. Since servers are constantly running, they produce a lot of heat which in turn requires lots of cooling so that they don’t overheat. The amount of energy needed to cool servers can equal the amount needed to run them and can also be very expensive. It would also be necessary to ensure that these servers are being managed around the clock to ensure the data isn’t compromised in something like a power outage or a cyberattack.
That’s where data centers enter the picture. Businesses can pay for space and power to house their data in a secure, 24/7 supervised, temperature-controlled facility that has back-up power supplies to ensure data is stored securely. This enables businesses to be able to spend less time managing the infrastructure that stores their data and more time focusing on their business-critical functions.
What is the Infrastructure of a Data Center?
The specifics of what’s inside and in what quantities can vary from one location to another. The Uptime Institute created a data center tier system to classify data centers based on a numbers of different criteria. But, a typical data center infrastructure contains lots and lots of servers, which are essentially powerful computers. Servers are often stored in racks, which is like a cabinet for multiple servers; in fact, servers found outside of data centers are often stored on racks within a room known as a server closet.
In many data centers, groups of racks will be found in a closet. Inside especially large data centers, expect to see rows upon rows of similar looking closets, often all out on one open floor or sometimes multiple floors.
In addition to these core components is all of the ancillary equipment needed to keep these servers up and running. Data centers contains lots of wires and cables for connecting servers to one another and to the wider network (like the internet).
Also expect to find the equipment that physically keeps the servers up and running. Power chords and electrical plugs abound in a standard data center. Servers also generate a lot of heat, so all data centers will have some kind of cooling mechanism in place such as fans, powerful air conditioning units and/or pipes filled with water.
Many data centers also include some level of security, to ensure no one is nefariously tampering with or destroying any critical computing equipment. Expect cameras, locked doors, sensors, alarms, security desks, etc. in most facilities.
Of course, data centers have spaces not just for the computing equipment that lives there, but also for the humans that work there too! Many data centers have offices, meeting/conference rooms, break rooms, etc. for staff members and any human guests.
What happens in a data center?
The specifics of what happens in a data center vary greatly depending on the type of location, why it was built and who uses it. In data centers that serve as colocation facilities or outsourced infrastructure overseen as part of a managed service, the kinds of compute services and tasks will vary significantly from one tenant to another. Some data centers are just for storing data backups, while others house and handle just about all of a company’s core IT tasks.
How are data centers used? Some data centers serve as interconnection hubs, connecting various colocation environments. For example, a CDN can interconnect with a cable company/ISP in a colo environment to allow users to stream movies. Other data centers are hyperscale and wholesale deployments, solely for the use of one company and its needs.
How big is a data center?
Data centers can vary greatly in size. Some locations are just a few hundred square feet, while others are over an acre. Digital Realty’s Oakland data center has 55,000 square feet of raised floor space in a 122,000-square-foot building, for example, while the Digital Realty Houston data center building is 50,000 square feet in total.
Where are data centers located?
Technically, a data center can be located anywhere. But, more often than not, data centers are found where the following are frequently readily available:
- Uninterrupted electrical supplies; it’s even better if electricity is cheap or even can be generated on site.
- Unlikely to be negatively affected by natural disasters, and out of 100-year flood zones when possible.
- Close proximity to business centers and fiber backbone routes.
- Available access to cooling for equipment such as cool outside air, power for air conditioning and/or water for heat transfer infrastructure - some data centers are even located underwater or underground for this reason.
How is a data center managed?
Every data center is managed slightly differently, depending on who built it and for what purposes. If just one organization owns a data center and uses it just for their own purposes, then they’d be the ones managing it, with their own staff on hand to keep tabs on everything.
One common type of data center is known as a colocation facility. Under such an arrangement, a business rents out a set amount of space within a larger location. The renter is responsible for installing servers, racks, etc. and for maintaining said equipment. They would also have to pay for power and cooling, although the core power and cooling infrastructure, along with the raised floor itself, is usually provided by the facility owner. With colocation, the facility owner is also responsible for maintaining the building at large and for security.
Another common situation is where a company will rent out everything from a central provider. The facility owner owns and maintains everything inside the data center, and allows organizations to purchase space on/the use of servers.
How is a data center different than a server room or a server farm?
A server room is just a room that contains servers and ancillary/supporting equipment like racks, fans, etc. Server rooms are often found within larger buildings like an office tower. In contrast, data centers are typically self-standing structures that take up all or most of a structure.
A server farm is a kind of bare-bones data center. Server farms are usually more amateur setups in which many servers perform specific tasks like mining Bitcoin and have little or no supporting infrastructure. Data centers are different in that they contain everything needed to power and maintain servers efficiently and effectively, making them well suited for most mission-critical and/or business-focused tasks and activities.
How is a Cloud Data Center Different?
A cloud data center is a facility that powers as-a-service applications and workloads specifically. For instance, a vendor that makes a software-as-a-service product would house everything needed to run the program on servers in one or many data centers, and then their clients could access the software via an internet connection. Instead of someone’s individual computer running the program, it’s run on servers inside data centers.