Nov 5, 2020

The cloud above the clouds

Data Centres
Edge Networks
Joanna England
4 min
Upcycling reaches new heights as tech experts re-purpose satellites as data centres
Upcycling reaches new heights as tech experts re-purpose satellites as data centres...

Space is no longer the final frontier when it comes to storing and processing data. As Microsoft recently announced its new ‘space-focused’ cloud service enterprise especially for the space industry, other companies are developing satellite technology into data storage centres. 

Innovators at the Florida-based edge-computing company, OrbitsEdge, plan to launch their first, stratospheric facility next year. The start-up partnered with Hewlett Packard in 2019 to develop unique equipment that enables them to use off-the-shelf, rackmount servers in space.

A recently-released company statement revealed the project is on track, saying,“OrbitsEdge has reached a significant milestone in our quest to put a high-performance data centre in orbit, a cloud above the clouds, with the testing of the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) EL 8000s. These are the actual systems that will be aboard our SatFrame™ during our initial launch in late 2021.”

The above-the-stratosphere environment is, according to OrbitsEdge, climatically suitable for cooling, while satellites are already powered independently by solar energy. 

The location of the satellite data centre will render it impervious to the threats facilities on earth are subject to, like natural disasters or physical terrorist attacks. While many data centres are located strategically and fortified to protect them from security breaches, (like the Bluebird centre in Missouri situated 85 feet below ground) OrbitsEdge is truly unique. 

Space-age servers

The satellite data centre will communicate with other satellites to collect and process information. It will also perform overhead edge-computing when a traditional data centre is unavailable. The innovative enterprise recognises the prospects in offloading and storing data from EO satellites (Earth Observation), transforming it into useful imagery, and sending the results directly to end-users in the field. 

Though the concept of data centres in orbit may seem extreme, Doug Mohney, Editor in Chief of Space IT Bridge believes it could well be the next big thing. He points to the falling cost of satellite building and launches and says the melding of IT concepts with satellite operations makes sense.

“Until recently, satellite hardware and software were tightly tied together and purpose-built for a single function,” comments Mohney. “The introduction of commercial-off-the-shelf processors, open standards software, and standardised hardware is enabling companies to repurpose orbiting satellites for different tasks by simply uploading new software and allowing the sharing of a single satellite by hosting hardware for two or more users.”

He adds, “This ‘Space as a Service’ concept can be used for operating multi-tenant hardware in a micro-colocation model or offering virtual server capacity for “above the clouds” computing. Several space startups are integrating micro-data centres into their designs, offering computing power to process satellite imaging data or monitor distributed sensors for Internet of Things (IoT) applications.”

Rick Ward, CTO of OrbitsEdge, explained, “We’re both edge computing and data centre. We want to put big-performance computing infrastructure into space to process data, cleanse it, aggregate data from multiple sources and analyse it. We are that missing piece of the infrastructure to commercial space.”

President of OrbitsEdge, Sylvia France, said financial technology companies had shown great interest in the project, as well as entertainment outlets. “It’s another location for processing data above the clouds. There’s a lot of interest in fintech, being able to make buy/sell decisions based on counting cars in parking lots. We’re also talking to entertainment companies as well, from space tourists to augmented reality firms.”

Industry innovators

Though Microsoft’s latest enterprise does not use satellites for data storage and processing, it does enhance the current use of space-suitable hardware and satellite infrastructure, to further revolutionise the data centre industry.

Azure Space will provide mobile cloud computing data facilities that can be installed anywhere on earth and connect to SpaceX’s Starlink and SES’ O3b internet satellites. The SpaceX and SES then provide point-to-point connectivity. 

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief of operating officer, explained, “You don’t need fibre, you basically talk to the satellites that we have in orbit, the satellites will talk to each other and get that data to the other point on Earth where it’s needed.”

Meanwhile, earth’s orbit isn’t far enough for the techs at OrbitsEdge, who are keen to branch into unchartered territories. The company is already considering building facilities on the Moon, Mars, and taking part in deep-space missions. 

Ward adds, “Our initial plan is to start at Low Earth Orbit then go to Geosynchronous Earth Orbit and cis-lunar locations. Possibly planetary surface missions where we are either static as a part of a base or habitat, but we also have the capability to attach onto a vehicle.”

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May 14, 2021

3 ways crypto mining is impacting the data centre industry

4 min
Spiking prices of cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin and Bitcoin are driving a new subset of the data centre industry that’s as risky as it is lucrative

Around the world - particularly in Russia, Eastern Europe and China - the global rise of crypto currency values has been driving an en masse industrialisation of the mining process. The trend has been bubbling away for several years, as the home mining rig has largely found itself edged out by hyperscale server farms comprising some of the largest data centres anywhere in the industry - all designed to mine crypto. 

The demands placed on a facility built and run as a mining operation are somewhat different to those placed on a hyperscale cloud facility or enterprise data centre. Reliability isn’t so much of an issue; if a mine goes down for a few hours, money is lost, but your data centre won’t take half the websites in Western Europe down along with it. 

On the flipside, density and cooling are much, much more important. To make a crypto mining operation profitable, you need to be harvesting more crypto currency (be it Ethereum, Dogecoin, or the perennial Bitcoin) than you’re paying for electricity by a significant margin. As a result, some of the most efficient cooling and hyper-dense rack architecture from the past few years - like two-stage liquid cooling - has originated as a crypto mining solution. Now, hyperscale cloud operators in particular are recognising the benefits of these innovations and applying them to other aspects of the data centre industry. 

Getty Images
Getty Images

1. Liquid Cooling 

Crypto data centres have always been as dense as possible, with their racks running at maximum capacity all day, all year round. By contrast, the average enterprise or cloud data centre isn’t necessarily running at peak capacity 24/7; workloads fluctuate with demand. However, as that demand has skyrocketed over the past year in particular, cloud and enterprise operators have looked to crypto’s preference for liquid cooling as a way to run data centres closer to the ragged edge of performance than ever before. 

One example of this is LiquidStack. The Hong Kong startup makes a revolutionary two-phase liquid cooling solution for data centres, which was developed over a number of years inside Bitfury, one of the world’s leading crypto miners. “Bitfury is sharing our knowledge with the global data center community and we are excited that Microsoft and other internet giants can benefit from our years of experience and investment to best practice liquid cooling,” said Joe Capes, CEO of LiquidStack in an interview with Data Centre Magazine. 

Now, LiquidStack is going mainstream, with substantiated rumours that Microsoft is looking to adopt their DataTank solutions across its ever-expanding portfolio of hyperscale cloud regions. 

2. Denser HPC 

One of the issues that liquid cooling solves is how to create ultra-dense server racks that can function at high temperatures. Crypto miners have been grappling with this problem for about a decade now, and the lessons they’ve learned are being happily adopted by the burgeoning data centre HPC market - which is swelling in response to greater AI adoption and increasingly-sizable data sets. 

With the density that mining rigs can achieve, server architects are cramming hundreds of kilowatts into individual racks - although it should be noted that this is still relatively rare. A 2020 survey from the Uptime Institute still found that the average density of data centre racks was growing rapidly, however. 

“We expect density to keep rising. Our research shows that the use of virtualization and software containers pushes IT utilization up, in turn requiring more power and cooling. With Moore’s law slowing down, improvements in IT can require more multi-core processors and, consequently, more power consumption per operation, especially if utilization is low. Even setting aside new workloads, increases in density can be regarded a long-term trend,” said the report. 

In 2020, average rack densities of 20kW and higher became a reality for many data centre operator. 

3. Sustainability Concerns 

Now for the more worrying news. The industrial scale and massive power consumption inherent to the crypto mining business - and the negative attention that miners are now starting to receive from government - could point towards a concerning future for data centre operators in the wider industry. 

Last week, the Chinese government announced that it would open an inquiry into the participation of Beijing’s largest data centre operators - which include the country’s three largest telecom firms - in crypto mining. At a time when the PRC government is attempting a significant reversal of its approach towards sustainability, the significant power draw of crypto mining activities may be one more hurdle than China cares to deal with. 

The Indian government is mulling a blanket criminalisation of all crypto mining in the country and, in the US, the State of New York is also looking into tightening regulatory restrictions on the industry. 

While crypto mining data centres are not the same as cloud or enterprise facilities, operators should be careful lest the ire of lawmakers be the latest trend to make its way from the crypto sector into the mainstream. 


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