What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 11/5/2012 | 11 comments

Andrew Froehlich
Datacenter footprints are shrinking, just not as much as they could if we could be more flexible with datacenter design.

Servers, switches, and other components can be virtualized and condensed easily these days. But what can't shrink as easily are the thousands of feet of copper and fiber optic cabling that interconnects components together.

When I saw the latest images of Google's massive datacenters around the country, the first thing that caught my eye was the tremendous amount of space that cabling consumes in them. We're talking about miles of copper and glass that can get out of control quickly if not under the watchful eye of a diligent IT administrator. While a single Cat-6 cable isn't much of a problem, try handling thousands of them crisscrossing datacenter racks, ceilings, and floors. Switch virtualization has helped somewhat, but there will always be a need for a way to interconnect multiple systems. And as bandwidth demands increase, physical cabling is our one and only option.

But a new IEEE standard is looking to help eliminate cabling by providing wireless transport that's fast enough for use in the datacenter. 802.11ad operates within the very high-frequency 60GHz range and has the potential to move traffic at up to 7Gbit/s. Combine the impressive speeds with the added benefit of having virtually zero network cabling management, and you have a recipe that will usher the next great leap in datacenter design methodologies. The only problem is, you'll have to completely redesign your current datacenter from scratch.

There is a weighty tradeoff when using 802.11ad that operates at such high frequencies. While the protocol allows for tremendously fast throughput, it does so at the cost of communication distance and obstruction limitations. An 802.11ad wireless signal can only transmit signals 9 or 10 meters at the most if the path between the transmitter and receiver is clear of obstructions. In order to get the best bang for the buck in terms of 802.11ad wireless network communication and fault-tolerance, researchers at Cornell University and Microsoft have developed a next-generation datacenter that is cylindrical.

By going cylindrical, you can take advantage of the full 360-degree range for point-to-point wireless communications. Servers communicate with each other within the circular rack by sending 802.11ad communications in a directional beam from an internally positioned server to a handful of listening servers on the receiving end seated on the outside of the circle. According to the Wired article, "every server is a kind of mini-switch -- called a Y-switch -- and none of the server racks need traditional networking switches for communications." No traditional switches for interconnecting devices also means no traditional cabling.

The idea of wireless communications sounds great, but datacenters designed to house rows of servers contain plenty of 90-degree angles. Along with that, cooling, lighting, and electrical follow rack rows in straight lines. In other words, circular datacenters may eliminate cabling, but they create a whole new problem.

That's why it is so critical to begin to push for datacenter components that are modular and easily moved. Everything from power receptacles to chillers and even internal walls need to be easy to break down and reposition. While you may never have to redesign your datacenter to accommodate circular racks, it doesn't hurt to build-in the flexibility, because you never know what innovation will come next.

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Andrew Froehlich   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/8/2012 10:13:17 AM
Re: not yet
@Sunita -- there are studies that show that 2.4 and 5GHz WiFi is hazardous while other studies show that it is not. My personal belief is that the frequencies that we're using for WiFi is harmless.
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SunitaT   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/7/2012 11:25:27 PM
Re: not yet
 If I were able to choose a frequency that added bandwidth at a slight cost of distance, I'd maybe choose something in the 8-10 GHz range.

@Andrew, I would like to know if whether signals emitted in that range from base stations are hazardous to human health?
CMTucker   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/7/2012 3:23:33 PM
Re: Could it be a cube?
@kstaron I'm sure those conversation happen quarterly @Wired!
CMTucker   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/7/2012 3:21:59 PM
Re: not yet
Plus not all radio signals are alike. Some have great ground-propogation some just don't. (That's why you can hear AM signals over a longer distance, some over 300 miles). 

Of course I'm not suggesting AM but the type of signal is going to be important. I would think that possibly LiFi, with ultraviolet signal communication might work. This is a nascent technology and I admit I am not "up" on it...but I would think the first consideration is the communication.

Andrew Froehlich   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/7/2012 3:21:56 PM
Re: not yet
Another great question Dave!

For one, I think people too often overlook the 5GHz range.  In my opinion, we can squeeze much more out of it than we're currently doing.  If I were able to choose a frequency that added bandwidth at a slight cost of distance, I'd maybe choose something in the 8-10 GHz range.
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David Wagner   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/6/2012 11:27:28 AM
Re: not yet
Makes sense, Andrew. And of course, those frequencies are in demand and taken up by a lot of other technologies.

Is there a butter zone frequency out there thet we wish we had but is being used for something else?
kstaron   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/6/2012 11:03:21 AM
Could it be a cube?
A wireless datacenter. Will Wired have to change it's name then?

I wonder it you could incorporate more traditional straight line design to make more of a cube structure to accomodate all those facilities with 90 degree angles and fans and vents already built into rows?
Andrew Froehlich   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/6/2012 10:24:10 AM
Re: not yet
Great question Dave! Unfortunately, when you modify radio waves, their frequency changes and that defeats the whole purpose of allocated ranges.  So unless 802.11ad adpots a different frequency, the standard is stuck with poor distance and obstruction performance.  That's why you haven't seen any imporvements with ranges in the 2.4 GHz spectrum The bandwidth increases but distance remains the same -- or even decreases slightly as we try to pack in more data on each wave.
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Anand   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/5/2012 10:36:57 PM
Re : What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?
The only problem is, you'll have to completely redesign your current datacenter from scratch.

@Andrew, thanks for post. Definitely 802.11ad has lot of advantages compared to older standards but I feel it would be difficult for the users to completely redesign their data centre. I think this limitation will definitely delay the implementation of cable-free datacenter.
David Wagner   What Is Holding Back the Cable-Free Datacenter?   11/5/2012 12:10:28 PM
Re: not yet
Interesting, Andrew. i see what you're saying about the modular infrastructure. Certainly if electrics and cooling and other stuff were easier to move around, this would be easier to adopt. But let's say that's not happening for awhile. Can we expect the wireless standard to evolve to allow for larger distances? That also would help, right?
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