The data centre powering Barcelona’s most iconic attraction

Data Centre Magazine spoke to the CIO of the Sagrada Familia about the services, tools and opportunities that its on-prem data unlocked for the church

In many ways, data centres are the forgotten drivers of our increasingly data-driven society. 

All too often, we marvel at the futuristic technologies that are in front of us, including digital twins and the Metaverse, but neglect to consider the tools and infrastructure that made them possible. 

And, when we do consider them, data centres are presumed to be some external force, quietly doing their job hundreds of miles away. While we expect to see vast Matrix-esque data centres in the middle of nowhere, we rarely anticipate their presence in our cities, on site in our attractions, under the very ground we are walking on, even. 

Data Centre Magazine spoke to Fernando Villa, the CIO of the Sagrada Familia, about the least tourist-attracting element of the Sagrada Familia. 

He discussed the opportunities that an on-site modular data centre has created for the church, not only in terms of evolving the experience for its millions of visitors, but also in the ongoing build of this famously unfinished masterpiece.

The hidden on-prem data centre, situated under the Sagrada Familia

The Sagrada Familia is one of the world’s most iconic Catholic churches, largely thanks to the exceptional design talent of its architect, Antoni Gaudi. 

Today, it is visited by around three million people every year, has been awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site, and holds the title of TripAdvisor’s most reviewed tourist attraction in the world.

As with many of the world’s leading tourist attractions, the Sagrada Familia is investing extensively in digital transformation, in order to stay relevant, keep up with the competition, and continue to adhere to visitors’ growing customer experience expectations.

Alongside this, tourist attractions have to quickly respond to changing business requirements. The increase in online traffic and data-driven solutions, where connectivity is required 24/7, means that the site requires a structure with a high degree of both reliability and flexibility. 

“The reason why we added a data centre to the site was, mainly, to gain the capacity to manage a big amount of data, which required us to avoid the latency as a factor of risk in the efficiency and availability of services such as video surveillance, design, engineering and ticketing,” Villa commented. 

It was these challenges that led the Sagrada Familia to invest in its own on-prem, tailor-made data centre. 

The opportunities unlocked by an on-prem data centre

Working with Schneider Electric, the Sagrada Familia commissioned two 25’ prefabricated SmartShelter IT modules, on-prem data centres, to be positioned within the site of the church itself. 

The fast-tracked project which took just 16 weeks to complete saw the implementation of a turn-key data centre infrastructure solution, complete with IT, racks, UPS, power distribution, precision cooling, environmental management and fire suppression system. 

Another challenge to the build was the fact that the data centre would need to be able to accommodate the church’s ongoing construction. So the unit was designed to be self-contained, portable and flexible, allowing it to be easily relocated when the site expansion required it to be moved. 

Sagrada Familia decided to add a data centre to its site in order to bring more value to the commercial side of the attraction, while also enabling the IT team to design new solutions and services. 

We have the inherent advantages of owning a data centre but, for our one, we didn’t need to prepare a physical space for it. And we gained the capability to be able to move it according to construction needs,” Villa explained. 

What is the on-prem data centre enabling the Sagrada Familia to achieve?

Once deployed, the church’s data centre was used to more efficiently manage ticketing admissions, retail operations and video surveillance. 

“We have a large volume of tickets daily and, as we almost have zero latency to our servers and systems, we can deal with such a high quantity without negatively impacting the quality of service,” Villa added. 

Plus, by keeping the data centre on-site, the team could ensure that concerns surrounding both latency and security were fully managed. 

Then, alongside the immediate practical applications, there’s the scope to implement data-driven technologies. 

Futuristic technologies like the metaverse and augmented reality (AR) are still very much in their early days, and they are far from losing their novelty factor. As a result, many organisations in the world’s entertainment and tourism industries are investing in their adoption to give visitors an bonus element to the experience. 

If we take AR as an example, this immersive technology has proven to be hugely popular within the global tourism and travel industry. 

AR has huge potential scope for enhancing ‘smart tourism’ experiences, including everything from AR tours and tour guides, to immersive on-location experiences. 

And many of the world’s leading travel and tourism companies are keen to get on board, with big names including Airbnb, Delta Air Lines, easyJet, Kayak, Marriott, TUI and the Virgin Group all investing in the future of AR technologies.  

Never one to fall behind on trends, the Sagrada Familia is also using data-driven technologies in a wide variety of exciting ways. 

Villa said that the team is working to deploy technologies across a number of key customer relationship and customer experience areas. These include VR, AR, an external people counter, and a unified comms. 

But these technologies are also equally beneficial to the maintenance of the historic site. In fact, they are proving to be instrumental in the next phase of its construction. 

“There are technologies that we already have on agenda for their practical applications. One example is the application of AR for the maintenance of facilities and deep learning in the security and tourism scopes,” said Villa. 

The Sagrada Familia is one of the world’s most famous unfinished attractions. Since Gaudi died without completing his masterpiece, it was left to his successors to finish the church. Yet his notoriously elaborate and exceptionally distinctive design style meant that this was no mean feat. 

However, in more recent years, this decades-long construction project has been able to use AR, VR and 3D printing to create designs that achieve a more authentic extension of Gaudi’s. 

“We use 3D printing to see models and designs in volume. With VR, an architect can develop the 3D model on their computer and, in just a few minutes, after transferring the model to VR glasses, they can see the model from any point of view (including from inside) and experience the immersion in the vision of the space that is being developed,” Villa explained.

In this way, the data centre and the data-driven technologies that it enables are proving instrumental in the next phase of the Sagrada’s life.

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