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The Unknown Infrastructure that Powers Our World

Video hosted by Fred Mills. This video and article contains paid promotion for Microsoft.

MAYBE you’ve never thought about it, but every video you watch, every photo you look at and every article you read lands on your phone, tablet or laptop thanks to a vast global infrastructure that goes largely unnoticed.

The Internet backbone, as it’s called, is made up of over half a million miles of undersea cables, hundreds of exchange points, around 8,000 data centres and countless more stations, directories and nodes. All of these facilities work in perfect harmony to send data for things like this article at the speed of light to your device from anywhere in the world.

Data centres can be used for general internet traffic or for specific uses, such as Microsoft’s fleet of over 300 data centres which host its cloud services in 140 countries around the world.

Above: A Microsoft data centre. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

Building these centres is a huge job and each one can take a team of up to 400 people five years to plan and build. A single building can easily rack up several million work hours to construction – and that’s all before they bring in the gear to actually run the Microsoft cloud.

Each of these sites is built around the needs of blade servers. These servers are essentially incredibly high performance hard drives, with each one capable of storing several petabytes of data – a single petabyte equates to 1M gigabytes.

Above: A rack of blade servers is inspected. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

To keep all that happening, they need to be powered, cooled and connected to the outside world. The servers are linked by fibre optic cables, which are in turn linked with other server rooms in the same facility by super high capacity cables to create a core network.

Keeping a constant power supply is crucial. For every megawatt a data centre is powered by, it has just over one megawatt in battery storage and diesel generator backup. In an emergency, centres can run for an average of 48 hours off this backup supply before they need refuelling.

Aside from the energy used to keep the servers running, a lot of power is needed to keep them cool. How that happens is constantly evolving and sometimes has surprising secondary uses, as Christian Belady, Vice President of Research and Development for Cloud Operations and Innovation at Microsoft told us:

“In the past we used just air to cool servers, just like your desktop. The beauty is once you go to liquid cooling, it's much easier to pipe away that hot fluid, so now you could actually start transmitting that fluid to local district heating, a pool, school building …”

Above: Water is used to cool blade servers. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

These kinds of heat exchanges are already in use. In Finland, work is underway on a heat exchange in the southern town of Espoo. A nearby Microsoft data centre will make use of the low air temperatures to cool its server racks. As the air warms it goes through a heat exchanger which is connected to the district heating system. The scheme will help the region reach its ambitious CO2 emission reduction targets. 

Above: A diagram showing how the Espoo heat exchange will work.

Microsoft’s project Natik, located off the Northern Isles in Scotland, took the idea of water cooling to a whole new level. It's an experimental underwater data centre.

But if you think this is a radical idea, future data centres might not look like a data centre at all. 

“We can learn from nature and actually develop data centres that are mutualisticly working together with nature," Belady said. 

"How do we make the data centre disappear? Make it just one you don't actually look for. You know, a beaver dam in the woods, it's just integrated into it and it's actually helping create oxygen as a whole as opposed to consuming oxygen, it creates water as opposed to consuming water.”

Another Microsoft project over in Amsterdam will be integrated into the local ecosystem. Forests and wetland will be planted around the centre which will boost biodiversity as well as creating greater storm resilience for the area.

So while next time you’re hiking in the woods, or walking past a beaver dam, you never know: you could be just on the other side of some of the most pioneering engineering in the world.

This video and article contains paid promotion for Microsoft. Learn more about the cloud infrastructure that powers Microsoft here.

Video narrated by Fred Mills. Additional footage and images courtesy of Google, Costar, Microsoft, Sergio77, CTBTO and Michael Kauffmann.

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