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How to Define a Data Center

By: Kaylie Gyarmathy on January 11, 2019

Data centers have become a ubiquitous element of today’s business and network infrastructure. They form the backbone of the internet and are absolutely vital to modern telecommunications and digital services. Massive quantities of data are being generated every day and the trend shows no indications of slowing down soon. By 2020, it’s estimated that for every person on Earth, 1.7 MB of data will be created every second.

That’s a lot of data, and it all has to go somewhere.

But modern data centers are far more than mere storehouses for data. In fact, they do so much that it’s difficult to pin down a simple data center definition. They make cloud-based services possible and provide computing resources to users ranging from individuals to the largest enterprise businesses and national governments. To understand how these facilities came to be so important to today’s internet infrastructure, it’s worth taking a brief look at the history of computing and definitions of some terms involving data centers.

Mainframes: The Proto Data Center

Long before the advent of edge data centers, cloud computing, and data center as a service providers, computing architecture was far less ubiquitous. Early computer systems were complex and difficult to maintain, requiring entire rooms equipped with special equipment and cooling capabilities to keep the power-intensive machinery from overheating. Known as mainframes, these systems were so expensive to build and maintain that only a few large corporations and government facilities utilized them before the 1960s. Since many of these mainframes were used for military applications (the earliest electronic digital computer, ENIAC, was used to calculate artillery trajectories for the US Army), security protocols developed around access and usage, which would remain a key element of IT security.

Mainframe computers were valued primarily for their computational power, however, not their storage capabilities. This and other characteristics prevent them from meeting the definition of a true data center. Connectivity was still limited and predominantly localized. In most cases, businesses had to physically travel to a mainframe location to utilize it; a far more inconvenient arrangement than modern colocation solutions. Mainframe computers were largely purpose built and lacked the flexibility to perform diverse tasks.

Personal Computers and Early Networks

By the late 1970s, the development of microprocessors made personal computers affordable for the first time. Over the course of the next decade, on-premises computers became a common feature of business and government offices. Limitations of hard drive technology, however, made it difficult for these computers to store much information locally. Mainframes continued to make themselves useful for storing records and other data. Engineers bridged the gap between the two by developing network file system protocols, allowing users on client computers to access files over a network. These principles would eventually make colocation strategies and cloud computing possible many decades later.

But mainframes still had severe limitations. They were expensive and difficult to update, which made it hard for them to keep pace with rapid advancements in desktop computers, which could be located both on-premises and off-premises thanks to newer, portable disk drives. Advancements in network infrastructure soon made it more viable to link much smaller computers together, providing a cost-effective and versatile solution to outdated mainframes. These networked computers soon became known as servers, and by the 1990s, companies were filling their old on-premises mainframe rooms with racks of interconnected servers. As networking deployments improved, some companies moved these servers off-premises to a nearby warehouse, a precursor to today’s colocation solutions.

The modern data center was born.

Data Centers and the Internet

The internet growth boom of mid to late 1990s was driven by a demand for network infrastructure that operated continuously and allowed companies to maintain a constant presence online. Both internet service providers and enterprise-level companies began to build data center facilities that could provision services and storage capacity. Although true cloud computing was several years away, these facilities matched today’s definition of the data center. Organizations of all sizes expanded their IT departments to meet the demand for connectivity and expanded data infrastructure both with on-premises and off-premises deployments.

While the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s slowed data center growth slightly, the market took off again later in the decade with an emphasis on server virtualization. The 2008 financial crisis caused many companies to look for inexpensive IT solutions, and cloud computing emerged as a viable alternative, offering scalable resources that allowed them to compete in previously capital-intensive industries.

The Modern Data Center Defined

Today’s data centers offer pay-as-you-go infrastructure solutions with unmatched connectivity options. Whether colocating hardware to reduce operating expenses or utilizing software-defined virtualized resources to save on capital investment, companies of all sizes are turning to data centers to deploy applications and computing resources with improved uptime reliability.

Data centers have also diversified, taking on different forms to fit different customer needs and fitting a number of definitions in the process. Hyperscale data centers handle massive amounts of data to meet enterprise-level needs and facilitate government services. Smaller edge data centers help to expand the reach of networks and reduce latency. Many facilities emphasize the data center as a service (DCaaS) model, offering a range of services such as colocation or more specialized hybrid and multi-cloud deployments.

As organizations continue to generate more data and deliver more services, data centers will surely continue to play a key role in IT infrastructure. Whether a company chooses to maintain its own on-premises facility or partners with an off-premises, third-party facility, defining the right data center solution is critical for their sustained success.

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