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What to Expect From the Future of Server Farm Design

Imagine server playgrounds, swimming pools, and shopping malls.

David Silverberg

David Silverberg

Photo of a WZMH-designed data centre in Toronto, on Parliament Street. Photo courtesy Tom Arban

Forget server farms. What about server playgrounds, or server swimming pools? Even server shopping malls, bedecked with Bauhaus flourishes?

A typical data centre is like a warehouse on steroids: networked computer servers house data surging through "the cloud," whether from massive data-sucking companies like Netflix or Facebook, or from smaller businesses sharing one server farm. But the data centres of the future might not be those drab boxy complexes that typically come to mind.

Cloud computing's rise is already influencing the future of data centre design. As cloud technology progresses, we'll be seeing more nuanced security measures, advanced IT technology—from the server infrastructure to the supporting equipment—and data centres will continue to suck tremendous power, more every year.

In 2000, data centres accounted for one percent of US power consumption, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit organization representing the US electricity sector. By 2015, due to the surge of streaming services like Netflix, that number had tripled.

Several forward-thinking architects, firms, and collectives envision a movement towards a data centre redesign, inside and out, that will make these facilities more eye-catching, eco-friendly, and adaptive to their communities.

"Data needs to be manifested architecturally," said Ivan Sergejev, chief city architect of Narva, Estonia, the country's third-largest city, in an interview. "Data should enhance our lives not only logically, but also spatially."

Project Rhizome's conceptual artwork of how a data centre can heat a top-floor swimming pool using its excess heat. Photo via Ivan Sergejev

Sergejev, along with several European architects, co-created the design startup Project Rhizome, which aims to build data centres for people. Throughout 2016, Rhizome published articles, spread blog posts on social media, and debated online about how it could innovate in the data centre space. While their founders haven't returned to Rhizome in 2017 due to commitments to other projects, Sergejev is convinced that data centre overhaul is ripe.

As he wrote in the trade journal DatacenterDynamics in 2016, "imagine a data centre that doubles as an all-season swimming pool or spa. This could transform the current challenge of server heat exhaust minimization into a fun new piece of public infrastructure."

A swimming pool isn't such a far-off idea. Kelly Quinn, research manager for data centre trends at IDC, a global network of market research experts, told Motherboard that leveraging multi-purpose data centres is "brilliant."

For one, data centre engineers are getting savvier on how to spread the heat stored in the aisles. Sometimes, heat generated from a typical mid-sized data centre can reach temperatures as high as 100℉ (38 ℃).

Quinn mentioned server farms where accumulated heat is dispersed into ground floor apartment buildings, saving the residents on their heating bills. There is also a massive IBM data centre in Boulder, Colorado that funnels its heat under city sidewalks to help melt snow.

The interior of an IBM server found in one of their data centres. Via IBM Canada

Urban data centre designers must also consider aesthetics, according to Quinn. "In data centres built deep in the city, you might see more modern builds, with clean lines and almost looking a bit Bauhaus," she said.

Aesthetics weren't such a priority when server farms were, well, literally on farms. Suburban server farms can often be just one story high, thanks to the widespread land they occupy. But in the city, land is at a premium, so data centres have to go vertical.

Data centres built in the city have different design challenges (and opportunities) than those farther away from downtown, according to Zenon Radewych, a principal at Toronto architectural firm WZMH.

On taller structures, you can play with texture, Radewych explained. At their data centre in the heart of Toronto Distillery District, an area downtown known for its outdoor markets and patios, "our pattern of terracotta clouding materials pays homage to the buildings in that area. It also resembles old computer punching-card patterning," Radewych added.

WZMH has designed more than 30 data centres around the world, and Radewych said the firm is constantly trying to push for new strategies to blend data centres into their environments.

"One idea is to design data centres out of recycled shipping containers, which can be small and low enough to slide them into existing office buildings downtown," he suggested.

A view of the BCC Data Centre in Ontario, designed by WZMH. Photo via EZMH Architects

Aesthetics also come into play as companies must also maintain strong security throughout the data centre, especially when these centres are increasingly encroaching on the populated downtown communities. At WZMH's data centre in Toronto, boulders and rocks surrounding the front-entrance doors weren't just installed for artistic reasons. Radewych said those design elements also provide front-line protection against oncoming attacks, like speeding vehicles. "We layer the design so the servers are in a building within a building, deep down," added Radewych. "Sensitive equipment is never close to exterior walls [to protect it]."

Data centres were once designed to be invisible, huddled away onto a tract of land, something to be ignored. Now server farms are moving towards a new role as "server suites" as they slip into the downtown core seamlessly. When we pass by them now on our way to work, we don't want to just see clunky buildings bringing little aesthetic attraction to our communities. We want our cloud-computing warehouses to boast that eye-pleasing appeal and multi-purpose flexibility that shape our cities into liveable spaces.

Correction: In an earlier version of this piece, the cover photo contained incorrect accreditation information. The photo caption has been updated.