Our dependence on data centers makes these vaults of information storage some of the world’s most valuable property.
September’s 6.1 magnitude earthquake that rocked Napa, California, was a stark reminder to everyone of Mother Nature’s destructive potential.
It was a warning that, at any time, damage caused by forces beyond our control can wreak havoc on our homes, business and even our historic wine cellars. We can eventually rebuild those possessions, but what happens when our information is threatened?
Today, much of our lives rely on data centers. Our daily social media interactions, the transport infrastructure we depend on, the accessibility and management of personal and corporate finance and the provision of our power and utilities. Data centers are critical for accessing medical records, running banking and stock market systems and feeding the communication and commerce needs we have every day.
Currently, there are more than 500,000 critical data center facilities worldwide that occupy an estimated 285 million square feet of space. These bedrocks of information processing and storage are essential to our increasingly Internet-connected lives.
Looking ahead, the number of devices relying on data centers is expected to rise sharply as the Internet of Things (IoT) trend brings data, often in real time, to more personal, community and corporate devices.
Data Center Dependence
The financial sector is all too familiar with the challenge of safeguarding data centers. IT issues and data center outages can cost banks, for example, billions of dollars in lost revenue and fines every year. While these issues can impact investor confidence and profits in short-term sector, it is the public who suffers through data-center downtime.
Imagine being on vacation with no access to your bank or credit card account. What if your salary couldn’t be paid or your new car or home mortgage couldn’t be processed because data centers were down? Our world grinds to a halt. It’s a scenario depicted in Intel’s satirical video “What Would a Day Without Data Centers Look Like?”
The truth is less amusing for those bearing the brunt of outages.
Any disruption of data centers highlights just how fragile the global economy is and how the most mundane activities are dependent on access to data via the internet.
Moving People by the Billions
Water and power distributed to your home is most likely managed by data centers. Traffic lights, train signals, bus routes, even the live traffic information delivered to your car, are reliant on data center facilities.
Consider Google and its ambitious efforts to bring automated cars to the mainstream. These so-called “driverless cars” could generate over 1 GB of data per second using their advanced image collection and computer processing technologies.
Multiply this by how many cars Google expects to manufacture in the near future and the mountain of data becomes unfathomable. If a particular data center does go down, your car could be nothing more than somewhere to stay dry while you wait for a bus.
The same pressures apply to airlines. Planes only earn money when in the air and if a carrier is experiencing mass delays it only adds to the financial strain. No data, no takeoff.
Closer to home is your daily shopping routine. Amazon reported that last year it took the company just 49 minutes of downtime to lose $4 million in sales, while a similar half-hour data center incident saw $65,000 hemorrhaged every minute. Data center downtime might make shoppers scream, but for a company like Amazon it really hurts.
Targets of Destruction
Emerging technologies highlight how exposed the modern world is, especially in an era of global terrorism. Data centers are considered strategic targets as much if not more than power stations and airports.
The whole of Syria was taken offline in 2013 when the government blocked external communications services. Iraq, North Korea and Sudan saw similar treatment at the hands of insurgents and their oppressive regimes. Data blackouts can and do happen.
Even when intentions are not sinister, events out of our control are unavoidable. Level 3 Communications famously cursed squirrels in 2011 for chewing cables, a pest that was responsible for almost 20 percent of outages. Undersea cables that carry data traffic between continents — regular targets for hungry sharks and clumsy ships — are even more susceptible.
Most major governments and businesses are focusing more stringently on data center security. The most famous example is Visa’s Operations Center East with an address “somewhere on the Eastern seaboard.” A genuine fortress with 130 former military personnel guarding its grounds, it has a moat and hydraulic bollards that can be raised to stop a car traveling at 50 mph.
Putting Our Lives in Digital Hands
The data center is now omnipresent. Its significance in our personal and professional lives cannot be overstated. From a misplaced server holding financial data to the loss of Netflix on a Sunday afternoon, data centers are now symbiotic entities we cannot separate ourselves from.
They will only increase in importance as the last non-digital services are disrupted by technology. Tech research firm Gartner predicts more than $143 billion will be spent on data centers globally this year. Given their monumental importance, this seems like money well spent.
This story was contributed by Richard Jenkins, vice president of worldwide marketing and strategic partnerships at RF Code, a real-time asset management and integrated sensor networks company based in Austin, Texas.