I, Cringely | Have you heard the one about Apple’s data center?

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.

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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?

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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.

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