Talk of data centers can be equal parts fascinating and mind-numbing; speculating about what new data centers signify, however, is nothing short of riotous. And, this week, Apple and Facebook gave us plenty to talk about. Facebook emerged as the mystery Company X building a large facility in Prineville, Ore., and speculation over what Apple will do with its $1 billion “iDataCenter” in North Carolina reached a fevered pitch.
For Facebook, its first data center could mean many things, including that the company has reached a growth level stable enough to predict future computing needs. Of course, like web companies before it (e.g., Google and Yahoo), Facebook’s expansion into its own digs could mean that it’s planning to grow the scope of its platform to offer even more services. Whatever its plans, however, Facebook will be able to carry them out on its own terms. Already, we’ve learned that it is taking some unique steps to reduce power usage and keep the facility cool, which is especially important given industry-wide struggles to do the same.
Regardless of its plans for the new data center, Facebook still has to fill it up with servers, which could be good news for Dell. Although it was supposed to be the vendor-of-choice for Microsoft’s Windows Azure data centers, Dell’s position was undercut by Microsoft’s recently announced cloud-computing partnership with HP. Thanks to the unified-computing trend, Dell’s top-tier server rivals all have inside tracks for large data-center sales (HP with Microsoft, Cisco with VMware partners, and IBM with itself), while Dell seems relegated to competing for third-party sales — not that it has been unsuccessful at doing so.
The server maker’s Data Center Solutions group apparently has been selling boatloads of its stripped-down, web-optimized boxes to organizations running large server farms, but there are questions about how many it has sold to Facebook. If the Dell-Facebook relationship has not yet solidified since the 2008 confusion, Jonathan Heiliger, who has been publicly critical about the shortcomings of server- and chipmakers for webscale operations, might find Dell DCS’s built-to-order offering difficult to resist now that he’s building from the ground up. Facebook’s initial project is smaller than those from Microsoft, Google and others (Facebook will spend $188 million for a 147,000-square-foot data center, compared with $400-$500 million and approximately 400,000 square feet for the big boys), but it would be a big sale nonetheless, and Facebook is a customer that certainly will be coming back for more boxes.
On the Apple front, the consensus seemed to settle on Apple using its forthcoming data center to deliver streaming music, a result of its recent Lala purchase. That’s a very-likely possibility, but probably not the sole purpose of the project. After all, Apple can’t store the MP3 libraries for every single iTunes subscriber – that could cost far more – and $1 billion might be a high price tag for a centralized streaming facility. Some think Apple is embarking on a larger-scale cloud-services mission, of which streaming music is just one part. As with Facebook, however, we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.