Security gate from Startown Rd.

In a few days we’ll be leaving Carolina, possibly forever. Following the recent death of my father-in-law — our reason for coming here in the first place — Silicon Valley calls once more. But before leaving town I was determined to scope out that $1 billion Apple data center in Maiden, NC. So I drove over, took some pictures, and talked to folks at the convenience store down the road. My conclusions from this unscientific research is that the giant Apple facility is mainly empty. It’s a huge building filled more or less with nothing and why Apple built it that way frankly escapes me. Maybe it’s just a shot across the bow of Google and its $650 million data center in South Carolina.

The place is certainly locked down. There’s a security gate on Startown Road and not much else to see. Apple has built a tall earthen berm around the entire site and planted trees atop that. The only way I could find to see the data center from ground level was from the Baptist cemetery next door. All that’s visible is the top of a huge white building and a couple of big tanks that may hold cooling water or, more likely, diesel fuel for emergency power generators.

Not much to see

I parked across from the main gate for an hour during the middle of the day and one pickup truck entered the facility.

It’s not that Apple has so little to do at the new data center which, after all, is supposed to be the center of iCloud and iTunes activity, updating all those Macs, iPhones, and iPads while serving video and audio to more than 200 million devices in all. That job isn’t trivial, but how much square footage does it actually take to do?

For comparison purposes, I looked at IBM’s Special Events Web Service (the gang that used to do the Olympics). They have 2000 square feet in three different data centers. They have a couple of racks of cache servers that handle over 95 percent of the actual work. Behind the cache servers are three racks containing about 50 1U linux servers setup in a cluster. These manage all the transaction work and anything that leaks through the cache servers.

Maybe the Olympics isn’t a good comparison, but where IBM has 2000 square feet, Apple has one million square feet — 500 times as much.

According to the Internet Movie Database there are about 700,000 movies in existence, excluding porn. Most movies will fit (in DVD form) in 4.7 gigabytes. Do the math and you get 3290 terabytes, which is a big number but not that big. Most data centers serving media files would cache about 10 percent for optimum performance. That’s 329 terabytes. Knowing a good percentage of movies aren’t worth the film they were printed on, you can probably come up with a 50 terabyte caching design and be able to serve anything anyone would want to see. Fifty terabytes of cache servers can fit into a couple of racks.

When planning a data center each rack requires about six square feet of floor space. But for the sake of discussion let’s make that 10 square feet to allow for non-server areas in the building. One million square feet divided by 10 square feet per rack means 100,000 racks could be constructed in the Apple facility. That’s 7.2 million 1U servers unless the racks are built extra-high, in which case there could be more than 7.2million servers.

Remember that between the 3290 terabytes of disk storage, 329 terabytes of cache and all associated servers, load balancers, etc. we’re talking at most 20 racks to serve every movie ever made. Now increase that by a factor of 10 because I probably blew a calculation somewhere. Now increase that by another factor of 10 because Apple may want to serve not only all our movies but all our TV shows, too. That brings us to 2,000 racks — two percent of the capacity of Apple’s data center.

Are you beginning to get my drift here?

Now Google isn’t Apple. Google is continually indexing the whole darned Internet, runs the biggest e-mail service, and many other services, not to mention all those ads. You can see how Google would require lots of data storage and servers to handle it. By now Google must have over a million servers and a very elegant way to manage them. But even Google’s million servers would require only 13.9 percent of Apple’s data center capacity.

So what is Apple doing with such a big building? I can’t imagine a workload that would need even a tenth of that data center.

Maybe they are building for the future, you say.

That’s crazy. Remember Moore’s Law? As time passes all of those Apple racks will be filled with new computers that are faster and have more memory and with storage systems that hold more, too. The square footage requirements are, in fact, likely to stay about the same for the foreseeable future, absent some quantum expansion of Apple’s services.

For that matter, what servers is Apple using, anyway? Certainly not the now discontinued xServes. That alone may be the reason why they’ve made the facility so difficult to see, not wanting to boost any competitor by admitting Apple is a customer.

So here’s my guess: I think it’s a joke. The building is a near-empty facility built primarily to intimidate Apple competitors. And so far it seems to be working.