Data Center Design

How to build a datacentre in a war zone

Modern warfare is a terrifyingly hi-tech business these days. The entire armed conflict in Afghanistan seems to have been filmed and published on YouTube. A search for “drone strikes” alone uncovers 40,000 pieces of filmed footage.

Technology has a part to play in uncovering the truth. Cameras capture a bona fide account of events, and the repository for this controversial data is a naturally going to be a sensitive issue. There are many ugly truths that people on both sides don’t want anyone to see, which is why the repository must be independent and highly resilient.

The technology is so intelligent now, it’s like a regiment of its own. The equipment has to be specially adapted for the theatre of war. It has to operate in hostile conditions, contending with bullets, shockwaves, explosions and climates that can freeze or fry the life out of you – sometimes both, as in the case of Afghanistan.

In Camp Bastion, the UK’s Ministry of Defence airbase in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, the main threat to the equipment is the heat and the dust. One datacenter, which was delivered in two modules, had to be assembled in the middle of a sand storm. So the assembly process has to be as clear and unambiguous as humanly possible. Soldiers are drilled to be able to strip and reassemble their weapons with their eyes shut. In the Royal Corps of Signals, they need to be able to create an entire datacentre blind.

On the other hand, some units were dropped into sites atop the Afghan mountains, where temperatures can fall to minus 9 degrees Celsius.

“There was only a three minute window for settling these modules – any longer and the helicopter delivering could be found with an anti-aircraft missile,” says Cannon Technologies product manager Mark Hirst.

Computing and communications are very different missions under these conditions. The simplified setup and stripped-down objectives are possibly disciplines that could be usefully adapted to great effect in the private and public sectors. 

Here’s an account of how an elite battalion of intelligence machines – The Flying Modules – is prepared for the conditions of war.

UK-based Cannon Technologies creates systems that can be dropped into any hostile territory and quickly be put to work. Its responsibility is to build units that can hit the ground running so that, no matter how bumpy its landing, within minutes it is streaming, processing and storing the images that will be used by a range of audiences, from commandos to court martial hearings.

Basic training

We joined a Globetrotter datacentre module as it underwent the equivalent of basic training in a ramshackle industrial estate somewhere near an army base in Hampshire. 

The technique employed for preparation is based on an age-old military training ethos. The recruit material is broken down first, then built up in the way they like it, so it can function as a machine in difficult circumstances. The empty vessels that will be deconstructed and toughened up and then reconstructed come mostly from the shipping container industry, where they have the raw strength to deal with hostile environments. But first, some of their ‘edges’ have to be taken off them.

By the time these are finished units, they need to be able to both act independently and to be able to work together as a team, combining to act as effectively one unit. So a huge amount of care is taken to craft these modules into efficient hosting machines that can secrete themselves anywhere and sit for days (even months), undetected, with minimal supplies.

Cannon starts with a basic frame and the instructor will begin the process of preparation with an arduous amount of drilling. This is an important process by which the frame is both strengthened and made more adaptable. Under the watchful eye of a seasoned driller, the sheet metal is carved into endless variations of intricate shapes, in all sizes and dimensions. These Meccano-like widgets can be bolted together to assemble frames that will be strong enough to carry the heavy-duty equipment needed for running a facility. Though they are thin enough to occupy minimal space they are incredibly good at bearing loads and can suspend a complete air-conditioning (AC) unit in mid air. It is not uncommon to see four AC units literally hanging out the back of a modular datacentre.

The sheet metal is drilled using highly skilled precision machine tool operators. Their talent is so rare they are never allowed to leave the preparation unit. Having completed the drilling, the raw modular datacentre material is ready to pass on to the next phase. But there is just one last ‘rite of passage’ to take place, which will mark the moment the module passes out from being a commercial product to a military entity. Each one will have an escape hatch cut into its frame, to allow its users to get out easily. If modules are indeed intelligent, then this will be the moment when they realise they are no longer civilians.

“None of that health and safety EC nonsense applies once you’re a datacentre in a war zone,” says Cannon’s Hirst.

Having completed its basic ‘training’ the module is ready to be kitted out with all the devices that will make it an intelligent unit – such as routers, switches, storage, power supplies, generators, regulators, temperature sensors and specialised earthing systems. Earthing a data center is not an easy job when it is being installed on sand, where you have to really dig down to create a connection.

Once installed, however, these data center modules can host all the computing and communications for the forces. If you watch drone footage, the chances it will have been encrypted and compressed, streamed and stored, processed and secured by one of these units.

Not all of them make it back safely however. Some came back with bullet holes in their cases after they had completed their mission. Others ended up with a worse fate, being burnt and buried, in the ruins of Camp Bastion, in case they fell into the hands of the Taliban.

There is much that the commercial world will learn about the potential of computing from these exercises in pushing it to its limits. Military technology is becoming more popular now, according to market analyst Daniel Bizo, at research company The451.

“Cannon is less known more for white-space infrastructure systems than prefabricated facilities but its [military research] has created one of the most versatile portfolios in datacentres,” says Bizo.

In a forecast (Global Prefabricated Modular Datacenter Forecast 2013-2018) the analyst quantifies the value of these modular systems at $4bn worldwide by 2018. “They’re now being adopted in in all industries, with all application types and in all sizes,” says Bizo.

Maybe someone will have a job for one of these digital war veterans, as long as they don’t mind a few bullet holes.


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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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