Real Clouds in Las Vegas: Scale, Power, Bandwidth and Guns

One of the challenges to understanding cloud computing is that it’s not easy to visualize what the solution really looks like. Before heading to HP Discover, I had the opportunity to tour the SwitchNAP facility in Las Vegas. There are dozens of cloud solutions (including HP, EMC, Joyent, Nirvanix, VMware) hosted in the 407,000 square foot co-location facility, and there’s strong (e.g., guys with guns) cloud security. Taking the tour is a geek paradise – it’s like a James Bond villain stronghold: employees dressed in black, metal desks, red and blue LED lighting, and the most technologically advanced data center that I’ve seen. Switch is not only a showcase for the scalable, dense and efficient power and cooling of cloud solutions, but also has extra capabilities of a networking buying consortium and the US Cloud inter-cloud exchangeto enable lots of interesting cloud deployments.

Switch Cloud Diagram

The Cloud Is Your Density

In enterprise data centers, the cost and scarcity of space, power and cooling are huges challenge for IT shops. Switch founder and CEO Rob Roy (his team calls him the “mayor of Switch town”) is the architect of the Switch data center design, which includes some very impressive power and cooling components. Equipment density is usually limited by power and cooling, but with Switch’s t-scif (Thermal Separate Compartment In Facility) design, the data center claims to have the best watts per square foot environment (1500W/sqft, roughly 5x average), and a high efficiency for such an extreme density of equipment. The Switch data center averages a PUE of 1.24 which is in line with the best pods or racked solutions, and is much better than the average data center which usually runs a PUE of 2-3 (see this article for the definition of PUE and Wikibon’s PUE improving case study). Each t-scif segment has tightly controlled sensor-driven, automated and localized  environmentals. When Sony Online came to Switch, a deployment that was originally designed for 5000 square feet could be deployed in 1000 square feet through increased density with efficient cooling.

Switch has room for growth, ground has already been broken on 2 x 300,000 square foot expansions, and there are plans and land that can bring the data center to 2 million square feet – and it’s already one of to the largest data centers in the US. While the choice of Las Vegas is surprising to most, there are two environmental advantages for the location:

  1. Las Vegas is the only major metropolitan area that isn’t affected by the big 8 national disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc);
  2. Despite some hot days, the temperature is actually cooler than 72˚F for 70% of the year, so outdoor air can be used for cooling.

The data center was not only attractive and well designed (of course no cabling nightmares), but amazingly quiet compared to most data centers that I’ve been in.

Physical Security in the Cloud

Visitors to Switch must have an appointment and enter through this secure gate. They are met by armed security personnel for screening.

Switch has a number of government customers, so security is tight. The facility has a perimeter wall and an armed security force made up of former military and law enforcement personnel. Every hosted environment has it’s own segmented physical environment. The lights-out facility will have 140MW of generators at full build out with 72 hours of gasoline and tri-redundant power. While Switch does not own any of the equipment, they do consult and partner with the tenants to assure security and manageability of the environments. Switch has a staff of 150 employees, and there are an additional 4000-badged customers that come onsite as needed for upgrades and expansions. A strong physical security and efficiently managed operation frees up tenants to devote more of an effort to the rest of the security of cloud solutions.

Overcoming the Networking Challenges of Cloud

Networking can be the Achilles’ heel of cloud solutions; while the speed of light will always be a limitation, both getting enough bandwidth and overcoming the “last mile” challenge can stop the deployment of cloud solutions. The third reason that Switch chose its location (aside from the two environment items listed above) is the networking “buying consortium” that it created through acquired assets from Enron’s bankruptcy. Switch is able to bundle low-cost, high-speed bandwidth – the “big pipes” that allow traffic to get from the cloud to the locations around the world – with its hosting solutions.

Switch's Carrier Neutral Connectivity

Due to the multiple tenants of cloud providers and end users, there is the ability to simplify “cloud bursting” with 10Gb Ethernet cross connects between clouds (see Intel’s iStreamPlanet case study). Switch has some big name internet customers including eBay and a large Russian search engine. There are also Big Data solutions in these clouds, including large clusters from EMC Greenplum (including a 1000-node, 54-cabinet, 24PB Apache workbench), HP Vertica and Terradata (which has 96PB of storage including 20PB of Hadoop). Hadoop and MPP solutions are best architected with highly scaled dense compute and storage together.

Your Cloud Path

Requisite cloud photo, taken from the plane while I was writing this article...

At HP Discover, SiliconANGLE and Wikibon dug deep into the cloud marketplace with a number of executives, end-users and thought leaders. As seen in this Wikibon IT Transfomation survey, customers are planning and deploying cloud (and specifically hybrid cloud is the top choice) at a much higher rate than a year ago. HP offers a broad range of products, services and tools (see HP’s Cloud Maps) for Cloud. Click the names to watch the following video interviews which dig into HP’s cloud options

  •  Steve Dietch, HP VP of Cloud Solutions and Infrastructure on simplifying operations with clouds
  •  Lee Kendrie, HP Managing Partner of Advanced Technolgies Cloud Consulting Services on the infrastructure and architecture of clouds
  •  Nick VanderZweep, HP Cloud Advisor on HP Cloud System, hybrid clouds and cloud bursting
  •  Jason Cohen, CIO of DAS/Omnicon, an HP customer who consolidated 100 agencies into a single private cloud data center

Toward the end of our broadcast, I hosted a discussion with Cloud Analyst Ben Kepes where we put a bow on the cloud conversation: the Switch tour; cloud news from HP, Oracle and Microsoft; cloud customer adoption; and educating the workforce for new cloud opportunities. Here’s the video:

It’s exciting to see how far the adoption of the many cloud options have come in the last 5 years. The cost structure of cloud solutions is the yardstick that CIOs should be using to measure the efficiency of their own IT environments. This wave of IT is starting to “cross the chasm” (programming note: Geoffrey Moore is scheduled to be on from Hadoop Summit; UPDATE: here’s his interview), so companies that haven’t planned and started to execute cloud adoption will be placed at a competitive disadvantage to the early majority.

Most of the big tech conferences coordinate tours of Switch (most weeks they have 50-100 people tour and burst to over 400 during the bigger shows). A big thanks to Jason Mendenhall (a CUBE alum) for the tour and to Mark Thiele (see his blog for much more on Switch) for setting it up for me. Photos by Stuart Miniman, diagrams from the Switch website and shared with permission.


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