As a general rule, it makes sense to store commodities that are used every day near big population centers. But data centers—those nondescript storage units for that magical place called "the cloud"—can be anywhere. In fact, data centers are often well-suited for remote locations, where energy and real estate is cheap and security is easy (you could build a data center inside a cave, for example). So why not take data centers to space—a vast landscape with virtually unlimited room to grow, little security risk, and lots of solar energy?
Advances in data center automation, which are trending towards a future that is almost entirely robotic and self-healing, could make it possible, according to Jack Pouchet, vice president of business development and energy initiatives at Emerson Network Power. Pouchet is always thinking about data center efficiency and the future of the industry—and he's noticing the beginnings of a problem that will only get bigger.
"Look at what's going on with mobile computing, mobile media, everything [being] on all the time, the next billion people connecting to mobile electronics and the Internet," he says. Building data centers to deal with cloud computing needs won't just be an energy suck—in some places, it will by physically challenging. "If you look at underserved markets, the population growth in Southeast Asia and Africa, and the cost of building a physical data center—bringing in roads, power, people, and broadband connectivity could be in the half a billion dollar range. You could put something in space for $100 million," he claims.
Pouchet imagines that data centers could be launched into geosynchronous orbit, flying high—but not too high—above Earth. The data centers might not be lightning-quick to retrieve information for users, but they could be used for "cold storage" for when speed isn't necessary (i.e. to store three-year-old Tweets).
Getting clean power wouldn't be an issue; space-based solar panels are already used to power satellites (some use nuclear power instead). But making sure an orbiting data center is automated enough would be tricky. Even if a robot can take care of 99% of incidents, that 1% that requires a human touch could kill the idea.
"It could be up to a year before people can go to do an upgrade and make replacements," admits Pouchet.
If self-healing technology gets to the point that it makes sense to put data centers into space, it will also make sense to put them in other extreme environments, like the deep sea. "There's a lot to be said for dropping a data center into the ocean," says Pouchet. "No one is going to be able to mess with it."