The cloud metaphor is misleading
Do you remember when you heard the phrase “cloud computing” for the first time? Pinpointing precisely when this term was first conceived is impossible nowadays. While Wikipedia says that Amazon popularized it in 2006, use of the word cloud as a metaphor for distributed computing capacities, including the Internet, actually goes back much farther. In fact, this precise term has even been found in documents from 1996.
The cloud concept garnered a great deal of mistrust in the beginning: After all, who really wants to entrust their crucial data to something so diffuse? Since then, reservations against the concept have melted like ice cream in last year’s summer heat wave. We all use a wide range of cloud services, sometimes without even being aware of it. I’ve been using Google Office for my personal data some time now, for example, and my photos are stored in the iCloud. I listen to music on Spotify and, if I manage to find a bit of time to relax, I watch movies on Netflix.
The cloud has become ingrained in many aspects of our work as well, from business software like CRM and ERP systems to services like online backups to completely virtual infrastructures.
But the cloud metaphor is misleading! Because the cloud isn’t merely a nebulous entity - it, too, has a physical infrastructure. Anybody who has ever seen a modern data center from the inside knows what the cloud really looks like: vast halls full of servers, storage and network components. Plus, you’ll find cooling units to dissipate the enormous amount of heat produced by the equipment and, last but not least, the backup power supply. While rooms full of batteries stand at the ready to bridge any gaps arising during brief power outages, a data center’s real backup power is produced by diesel generators: huge ship’s engines that are kept heated at their operating temperature and automatically start up with an unbearable roar whenever a power drop is detected.
Particularly for companies, the physical location of the cloud to which they are supposed to entrust their data plays a huge role. This is a conclusion already reached by international cloud providers, referred to as hyperscalers, who are currently setting up their infrastructures in Switzerland or looking into making the move. Rather than building their own data centers, they are planning on renting space in commercial data centers instead.
Yet a new generation of data centers is needed to host hyperscalers’ massive infrastructures. This is mainly attributable to the fact that providers have boosted the power supply to IT racks in their own data centers to such an extent that up to three and a half times more power needs to be available per rack than is currently the case in standard Swiss data centers. This approach allows them to operate many more high-performance racks in the same footprint.
For data center operators, however, this change is both costly and complex because the growing thirst for greater performance not only calls for an increase in the primary power supply but also corresponding adaptations to the backup power supply and more efficient cooling systems. Other factors have to be kept in mind as well, including structural measures like how to design the delivery area: If a hyperscaler moves into a new data center, one or two semis full of equipment can be expected to pull up to the building every day for the next few weeks. The next time we talk about cloud computing, we should keep the enormous amount of effort this involves in mind as well as which physical infrastructures have to be in place for us to conveniently work “in the cloud”.