Inside: Data Center Migration to Space – Science Fiction or Enterprise Reality?

Data Center Migration to Space - Science Fiction or Enterprise Reality?(Ping! Zine Issue 66) – When companies begin thinking about conducting a data center migration, lots of alternative locations likely come to mind. IT teams may pine for a warm and sunny location, while C-level executives often prefer to have a facility situated close to a large city with a cold climate. Over the past few years, data centers have popped up in a variety of eclectic locales – churches, department stores and even on the side of the Ozarks mountain range. Still, it’s likely that no matter what kind of data center migration an organization has in mind, one location is probably not being considered: Space.

Space, as any good “Star Trek” geek knows, is the final frontier. It could be the ultimate data center location for operators that want to leave Earth-bound facilities behind – at least, that’s if some imaginative industry minds are to be believed. The vast, dark atmosphere that recently wowed moviegoers in “Gravity” with its scope could be the home of dozens of data centers orbiting the Earth, transmitting data down to humans below. According to Co.Exist Senior Editor Ariel Schwartz, all companies should be considering space as the final destination of a data center migration.

Hosting a data center in space is a great idea, according to Schwartz and Jack Pouchet, vice president of business development and energy initiatives at Emerson Network Power, for the following reasons:

  • Limitless clean energy due to the abundance of solar radiation
  • Lots of room for expansion
  • Safe from physical harm
  • An incredibly cool climate fostered by the supreme cold of deep space
  • Cost-effective (potentially) data center migration to space, compared to opening a new facility in a remote region of Earth
  • Decreased personnel costs – data center automation software is advancing to the point where no humans are needed to maintain a facility

Why a Data Center Migration to Space is a Terrible Idea (Right Now)
Still not convinced that moving a data center to space is smart thinking? Don’t worry, because you’re 100 percent correct. In theory, the above points sound great, but other than the physical room for expansion (space does trump Earth on that one) the rest of these benefits rely on some brain-bending leaps of logic and assume full functionality of as-yet-undeveloped uses of technology. On closer inspection we can see that this idea is nothing more than science fiction (at least for the foreseeable future). As they say, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Let’s break down three of the above points to get at the real heart of the matter.

Space-based facilities are safe from harm.
Sure, the likelihood of burglars breaking into an artificial satellite is low, but that certainly does not mean that such a data center has nothing to fear. For example, a solar flare or a blast of radiation could render the center kaput. Plus, think about all the damage an asteroid could cause (again, and with apologies to Neil deGrasse Tyson, we saw what happened in “Gravity”). According to the latest statistics from NASA, more than 10,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered since the program began slightly more than 100 years ago, and the Minor Planet Center currently averages about three NEO sightings every day. Plus, 1,425 of these NEOs have been classified by scientists as potentially hazardous asteroids. If you know anything about dinosaurs or the 1998 film “Armageddon,” then you know that asteroids are not to be messed with.

Space debris from satellites, spacecraft and other man-made objects is also a problem. According to NASA, more than 20,000 pieces of space debris bigger than a softball and 500,000 pieces with more mass than a marble currently orbit the Earth, plus millions more so small they elude tracking devices. They circle around the globe at speeds as fast as 17,000 miles per hour – even a paint fleck can damage a large spacecraft if its hurtling at that speed. It would be hard to convince many data center owners that their data centers are completely secure in a facility that could be knocked offline by a few rogue paint chips.

Deep space is frigid, which is ideal for cold air cooling.
It’s true – deep space is far colder than anything experienced on Earth. However, space can also be far warmer depending on the angle of the sun. For example, the Moon’s surface temperature varies between -387 degrees and 253 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Data centers, of course, have strict temperature requirements. ASHRAE guidelines recommend an average data center temperature between 68 and 72 degree Fahrenheit, although Data Center Knowledge noted that some companies have been able to slash their cooling budgets by increasing internal temperatures to as high as 80 degrees.

Even today’s most advanced cooling technologies would be unable to deal with the types of extreme temperature fluctuations found in space. Regions such as Iceland, Finland and northern Ireland, currently seeing increased investment for their cool natural climates, are only slightly cooler than anywhere else in the world when compared to galactic temperatures. It is cold in space, but it gets really hot beyond the atmosphere as well. Most equipment is not built to handle these kinds of extremes and would likely break down in seconds if exposed to space.

A space-based data center is cheaper than you would think
Out of all the major points brought up by Schwartz and Pouchet, this one may be the most unrealistic. Pouchet claims that a data center can be launched into space for around $100 million, while building a new facility and related infrastructure in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia could easily set a company back at least $500 million. To cite a relatively extreme example, Google spent approximately $1.6 billion on its data centers during the second quarter of 2013.

However, a closer look at the number reveals that Pouchet’s estimates are likely far off base. According to National Public Radio’s Planet Money team, private companies claim to ship items to space for between $1,000 and $3,000 per pound, while it costs NASA around $10,000 per pound. At those rates, Pouchet could only send a miniscule data center into orbit – enough to save a few old Tweets, perhaps, but not a data center you can depend upon for a large share of mission-critical storage.

Of course, we’re only scratching the surface, as there are many other data center migration points to consider. Schwartz and Pouchet’s galactic hopes ignore the myriad places on Earth that have ample access to clean energy in far less hostile climates. Plus, the distance between the objects orbiting the planet and Earth itself is so great that a circling data center would only be adequate for backup purposes. Schwartz also admitted that automation and remote management technology is years away from making this feasible. Even if 99 percent of the facility could be automated, the 1 percent of issues that require human intervention would waylay operations significantly, as it’s not exactly simple to commute to space for a quick fix.

It is definitely fun to think about a data center migration into space, but for now it is an unattainable reality that is far, far away for just about every organization.