A Data Center Oasis in the Sands of Las Vegas

Steven Hill
Steven Hill

Summary Bullets:

• Much attention is paid to the hardware infrastructure within your data center, but many of the long term energy savings can be gained through optimizing the architecture of the data center itself.• There are a number of high-efficiency, data center designs available for companies looking to build out an extremely scalable and efficient data center. The challenge lies in finding the best possible combination of location, security, fault protection, energy efficiency and availability of connectivity; and sometimes it really pays to think outside the box.

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a huge nerd that really enjoys visiting data centers. There’s something about the rows and rows of humming systems, the graceful elegance of a well-crafted cable bundle, and the blinkenlights…the blinkenlights. Anyway, a few weeks back I had the opportunity to tour a data center hosting facility in Las Vegas called SUPERNAP, designed and run by a company named Switch. My first thought was “Why, of all places Las Vegas?”, but this–along with every other question I could possibly think of—was answered during a two-hour tour of one of the most remarkable data center facilities I’ve ever seen.

The SUPERNAP hides in plain sight, tucked into a warehouse-y section of Las Vegas, but don’t try to look it up in Google Maps because it won’t show up. That’s only part of the world-class security they’ve built around the facility that starts with state of the art intrusion prevention systems and carries over to the extremely polite but well-armed security guard that trailed my host and I throughout the visit. Over the top, you say? Well, not really if you consider the expectations of the broad range of very serious customers that occupy the neatly caged rows upon rows upon rows of data center hardware they protect. In fact, I would say that almost everything about the SUPERNAP is over the top as part of an extremely well-planned and executed design; and that’s the way it should be.

So, what’s the big deal? Aren’t all mega-data centers the same? In some ways, yes, the problems of powering, cooling and protecting large data centers are pretty much universal, but the difference lies in how Switch and its founder Rob Roy chose to manage those challenges. Rather than basing his design around existing technology, he approached the problem from a completely fresh angle. The resulting SUPERNAP was a combination of intelligent industrial design and common sense that resulted in a purpose-built facility that’s more of a data center hosting machine rather than a mere building. When Roy learned that existing cooling systems weren’t up to the task of handling a 400,000 square foot facility with a 100-megawatt power envelope, Switch created and patented its own super-efficient and redundant 1,000-ton air handlers, plus a building-level cooling system that incorporates fans with an integrated, 500lb flywheel that will continue to spin for an hour after the loss of power. When traditional power system designs didn’t meet their strict criteria for stability and redundancy, Switch designed new ones that did. And when existing construction design and building techniques didn’t pass muster, Switch created new ones optimized for the specific nature and dynamic growth requirements of the data center facilities they envisioned.

The result is a data center environment that can easily support oversized racks with power consumption that exceeds 30Kw per rack, which means that customers can fit far more gear in less floor space, but this is only the beginning of the benefits the SUPERNAP’s economy of scale offers to customers. Another catalyst for the creation of the SUPERNAP design came when Mr. Roy was smart enough to snap up all the broadband contracts that were liquidated when Enron went belly-up. In the early 2000s, Enron was in the process of building out a communications network that it could market as another commodity and had convinced over 40 major carriers to hub in Las Vegas (ah-hah!), because of its geological stability and proximity to power resources. Switch was in the right place at the right time when Enron foundered. The growth of SUPERNAP has also made it one of the top power consumers in Nevada, and as such the state has given it the ability to negotiate its own power contracts, which come from a combination of traditional generation facilities as well as from solar, wind, geo-thermal and hydro-electric sources. The result is that SUPERNAP customers gain the benefit of Switch’s combined, $2 trillion buying power through cooperative programs for network, power and cloud services; and available whether customers are running a single rack or a thousand.

I’ve had the pleasure of touring a number of really great data centers around the world, but none so far have compared to the remarkable combination of intelligent architectural design, technology innovation and attention to detail that I experienced on my tour of the SUPERNAP. I would guess I’m not alone in my appreciation of the facility-Switch has an impressive list of over 1,000 customers that include logos like eBay, MGM, DreamWorks, Sony and Intuit; plus a number of high-security entities it would never divulge. And Switch does this while remaining fiercely independent and system vendor-agnostic; it’s obvious its key interest is in providing the best possible data center hosting facility possible. And, from all indications, in being extremely nice people to partner with. When the zombie apocalypse comes, I know where I wanna be.

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