Will the Data Centers of the Future Be in Space?
Park Place: Hardware Maintenance
What would possess a company to build a data center in a pod and then launch it into geosynchronous orbit?
SpaceX and its Falcon Heavy launch of Elon Musk’s personal Tesla into orbit between Earth and Mars has helped make space travel sexy again. Something about David Bowie’s Space Oddity playing to the stars has captured the imagination and plenty of speculation about what’s coming next in the vast horizons over our heads.
Among the prognostications is the possibility of transitioning the common data center you know, those server farms that pepper the landscape these days into the heavens. We were recently asked about this possibility by a reporter, and we had to agree that yes, someday it’s possible and even likely.
What would possess a company to build a data center in a pod and then launch it into geosynchronous orbit? As strange as it may sound, there is much to recommend the idea: plentiful solar energy, a cold environment with almost no corrosive humidity, no storms or other weather events to worry about, and an untouched pod filled with nitrogen, where spinning drives could turn happily in zero-g.
As technology is miniaturized and the cost of launching satellites drops, the possibility of space-based compute and storage becomes more appealing. Enough so that Microsoft is already running trials of sealed data centers under our oceans, which could provide insights for doing so in space. And HPE has sent unhardened equipment to the International Space Station to test how off-the-shelf IT hardware could use less expensive software means to survive solar flares and radiation hazards. So in a way, the quest for the space data center is already on.
There are significant challenges remaining, key among them the low-bandwidth and high latency of current technologies to send large quantities of data up to an orbiting pod and back down again for terrestrial use. For space exploration, however, ships may soon tote along the processing capability to handle the many terabytes of data such missions generate, streamlining communications with their home base.
Of course, these advances are predicated on the concept of a maintenance-free data center, built, configured, and launched, never to be touched again by human hands. Those of us providing data center maintenance services realize how steep this technological hurdle remains. Few systems installed on Earth today hum along without a manual reset, a replacement drive, or other intervention for the entirety of their service lives. Sadly, ambitious initiatives, like the IoT of data center facilities, have not yet realized the fully autonomous, lights off data center operations of our dreams.
And yet, with the pace of progress today in space exploration and in data center technologies, the possibility of sending our IT into orbit, to the moon and Mars, and to frontiers beyond seem tantalizingly close.