Is this the warped future of historical preservation? London's iconic red phone booths are WiFi hotspots. The abandoned pay phones of New York are digital “smart screens.” And now your local Sears could be a data center.
Sears Holdings, the 120-year old retailer (which now includes Kmart), plans to start converting its struggling and defunct department stores into data centers, Data Center Knowledge reported today. A new unit of the company, Ubiquity Critical Environments, will lead the charge.
Thanks to Walmart, specialty shops, an economic downturn and—the sweet irony—online shopping, department stores are heading toward extinction, and Sears is feeling the pain particularly hard. It’s expected to close at least 100 stores this year, more than any retailer other than analog media victims Best Buy and Barnes and Noble.
At the same time, humans are producing shit-tons of data. We're talking several exabytes (18 zeros!) of data, taking up, as of two years ago according to Emerson Network Power, 285,831,541 square feet of space on Earth. To put it another way, all the world’s data storage would cover half the island of Manhattan.
That's already a ridiculous amount of information, to say nothing of the fact that it's growing at exponential rates, so fast we may actually run out of words sufficiently absurd enough to measure it. (After extabyte, which is 1 billion gigabytes, we have only zetta and yotta—24 zeros!—left, NBC pointed out, before we’ll have to make something else up.)
Which is all to say that utilizing the empty warehouses lying around is logical enough, not to mention it’s a pretty smart move for Sears to "reposition its assets" this way; data centers pay more per square foot than your average commercial tenant. It’s also not a new idea. Google converted an old Finnish paper mill into a data center in 2011 and Amazon took over a supermarket warehouse in Dublin.
Of course, not every Sears location is up to the task. To run a functional data center you need not just space but power—lots of it—cooling, unless the natural climate is very cool (I’m looking at you, New England), bandwidth, and so on. Ubiquity has hired an engineering firm to do “data center fitness tests” on Sears retail locations. The first project underway? A 127,000-square foot Chicago store that's closing at the end of June. Most buildings ripe for conversion will be large standalone stores and distribution centers.
Sears isn't rushing to turn their mall locations into repositories of cloud servers, though chances are even that’s only a matter of time.