The History of Data Centers

01.05.2024 8,509 8

The history of data centers is linked to many thrilling technologies developed through time and is important due to the crucial role data centers play in powering the digital economy worldwide.

What is a data center?

Before we get into the exciting history of data centers, let’s define the term data center. It is a physical space, a facility that contains computer and storage systems, and related components used to organize, process, store, and spread large amounts of data and information. Such a facility is purpose-built to provide a secure and controlled environment for computing resources, ensuring high availability, reliability, and performance.

Data centers vary in size, complexity, and purpose, ranging from small server rooms or closets in office buildings to massive facilities spanning hundreds of thousands of square meters. They serve a wide range of industries and applications, including cloud computing, telecommunications, financial services, healthcare, and e-commerce, supporting critical business operations and digital services around the world.

Companies are using data centers to perform more laborious tasks like data security, providing virtual servers, cloud computing, hosting, load balancing, storage, and more.

What are the key components of a data center?

Servers

They are the primary computing devices within a data center, responsible for executing applications, processing data, and responding to user requests. Servers can range from individual physical machines to virtualized instances running on shared hardware.

Check the difference between desktop computers and servers.

Networking infrastructure

This includes routers, switches, and firewalls, and enables communication and data transfer between servers, storage systems, and external networks.

Read our article on “Router virtualization and firewall virtualization” to learn the difference between a router and a firewall.

Security measures

Security is essential for data centers, so they implement multiple layers of physical and logical security measures to protect sensitive information and infrastructure from unauthorized access, theft, and cyberattacks. These places are armored with access controls, biometric authentication, surveillance cameras, intrusion detection systems, and encryption.

Regarding security, you can greatly benefit from reading our articles about passkeys, 2FA alternatives better than SMS, how to create perfect passwords, and how to hack-proof your devices and stay safe.

Storage systems

Data centers include storage devices such as hard disk drives (HDDs), solid-state drives (SSDs), and storage area networks (SANs) to store and manage vast amounts of data. Storage systems provide high-capacity, scalable, and reliable storage solutions for various types of data.

Do you know what RAID is?

Power and cooling systems

Data centers require significant amounts of electrical power to operate servers and other equipment, as well as robust cooling systems to maintain optimal temperature and humidity levels. Power distribution units (PDUs), uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), and precision air conditioning systems are commonly used to ensure reliable power delivery and efficient cooling.

Read more about the UPS devices.

Management and monitoring tools

These advanced tools provide visibility into resource utilization, performance metrics, and system health, allowing administrators to optimize operations, troubleshoot issues, and ensure compliance with service-level agreements (SLAs).

The history of data centers

In 1946, the first data center was created

In the 1940s, the concept of data centers as we know them today did not yet exist. However, during this period, early digital computers were being developed, and there were efforts to create centralized facilities to house these machines and support their operation. The history of data centers began to be written.

Let’s contextualize to understand the technological advancements that laid the groundwork for modern data centers:

  • Vacuum tube technology. Computers relied on vacuum tube technology for processing data.
  • Room-sized computers. The computers at that time were massive machines that occupied entire rooms or buildings.
  • Punched card systems. Early computers’ data input and output were often performed using punched card systems.

Probably the first data center was created in the USA, and it was called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). It was built between 1943 and 1945, becoming operational in 1946. The American army used it for storing defense codes. This computer had almost 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, and 10,000 capacitors. The thing was huge – 167.2 square meters (1,800 square feet)!

ENIAC was housed in a specially constructed building at the University of Pennsylvania, equipped with extensive electrical and cooling systems to support the computer’s operation.

1960s, transistors and virtualization revolutionized the computing scene

During the 60s, the computers’ vacuum tubes were replaced with transistors, mainframe computers were the rule, data were processed through batch techniques, magnetic disk (tape) storage was used, and networking technologies improved.

One of the pioneering data centers of this decade was the IBM Federal Systems Division’s Data Processing Center, established in 1963 in Owego, New York. This facility was one of the first dedicated data centers built to support large-scale computing operations for government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense. The Data Processing Center housed mainframe computers, peripheral equipment, and specialized systems for processing and storing vast amounts of data.

During this decade, another key technology emerged: virtualization, and thanks to it, the mainframes started to multitask. IBM focused heavily on developing advanced time-sharing solutions. Time-sharing involves multiple users sharing access to computer resources, aiming to enhance efficiency for both users and the expensive computing resources they utilize. This approach marked a significant advancement in computer technology, as it substantially reduced the cost of accessing computing capabilities. As a result, organizations and even individuals could leverage computer resources without the need to own and maintain physical hardware.

Later, in 1964, the first supercomputer was introduced. It was the CDC 6600, with a performance of 1 MFlops and a peak at 3 Mflops. Technology was steadily advancing.

Check out the top 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world.
And by the way, you can read about another invention from 1964 that changed the world – the computer mouse!

1970s, a new processor and a game-changing tech reshaped data centers

Many different events occurred during this decade pushing the evolution of data centers. One of these notable developments was the establishment of commercial data processing centers by companies such as Control Data Corporation (CDC) and IBM. These centers provided outsourced computing services to businesses and government agencies, offering access to mainframe computers, storage systems, and other computing resources on a rental or subscription basis.

Also, the 70s started exciting with the introduction of Intel’s 4004 processor (1971). It was the first general-purpose programmable processor that became the “brain” of different customized devices.

Read about Intel’s 4004 and other of the most important processors of all time.

Two years later, Xerox Alto got onto the market and presented the first graphical UI. This computer was way ahead of its time, and it even came with a 3-button mouse.

In 1977, the Chase Manhattan Bank applied for the first LAN – ARCnet. It supported up to 255 computers and a data rate of 2.5 Mbps.

Just a year later, the American multinational software company SunGard established the first commercial disaster recovery.

1980s, microcomputers, LANs, and RDBMS hit the computing landscape

The proliferation of microcomputers, workstations for business and personal computing, and the emergence of client-server architectures also influenced the design and operation of data centers during this period. The massive and expensive mainframes were dying. They were replaced with cheaper and easier-to-maintain PCs.

The American computer manufacturer Sun Microsystems created the network file system protocol. With it, the client computers were able to access files over the network in a similar way to accessing internal storage.

Ethernet and TCP/IP protocols were widely adopted. Local area networks (LANs) became more prevalent within data center environments, connecting servers, workstations, and storage systems to facilitate data sharing, communication, and resource access.

Read about the differences between IPv4 and IPv6 and what happened to IPv5.

Relational database management systems (RDBMS) such as Oracle, IBM DB2, and Microsoft SQL Server were developed. Also new data storage technologies such as high-capacity hard disk drives, magnetic tape libraries, optical storage systems, and storage area networks (SANs) were created. These developments allowed higher volumes of data to be processed, organized, and stored.

1990s, the Internet revolutionized data centers and the world

The 90s were a time of the dot-com boom. The history of data centers underwent significant transformations driven by advancements in computing technology, networking, and the Internet. Its usage was rapidly increasing, and so was the demand for better connectivity. Due to that high demand, data centers also gained popularity. There were new and larger centers emerging. The service model of the data centers became common and a requirement for many companies, and emerging industries like e-commerce, which considerably increased the reliance on digital data, internet infrastructure, hosting web servers, email servers, and other online services.

Virtualization was confirmed as an essential technology for data centers to satisfy the high demand for online services. Only by consolidating computing resources, improving resource utilization, and reducing operational costs, data centers could serve so many clients. At this time, virtualization laid the foundation for modern data center architecture and cloud computing.

Internet data centers (IDCs) arose in this decade as specialized facilities designed to host and manage Internet infrastructure.

The demand for high-performance computing (HPC) solutions grew, driven by scientific research, engineering simulations, and financial modeling. Data centers deployed specialized HPC clusters and supercomputers to support computationally intensive workloads, such as drug discovery, weather forecasting, and seismic analysis.

2000s, from cloud computing to green initiatives, current data centers

The non-stop demand for digital services, cloud computing, and big data analytics fueled the growth and evolution of modern data centers. At the beginning of the period, power efficiency was beginning to cause maintenance issues. The current generation of data centers is consuming too much power. This started a trend to improve efficiency, build better cooling systems, and to reduce consumption.

The 2000s saw the rise of cloud computing as a dominant computing paradigm. Cloud computing revolutionized IT infrastructure by providing scalability, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness for businesses of all sizes. In 2002, Amazon started its web services AWS, which include cloud computing, storage, and more. Ten years later, 38% of the business was already in the cloud.

Learn what IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS are and the cloud’s physical location.

Virtualization kept evolving and maturing. Containerization technologies, such as Docker and Kubernetes, revolutionized application deployment and management in data centers. Advances in server hardware, cooling systems, and power distribution enabled data centers to support higher densities of computing equipment.

Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) solutions were developed and adopted. These software solutions provided real-time visibility into power usage, cooling efficiency, and equipment health, helping data center operators optimize resource allocation and improve overall efficiency. The proliferation of internet-connected devices and the growing volume of data generated at the network edge drove the adoption of edge computing architectures.

Growing concerns about energy consumption and environmental impact led to the development of green data center initiatives.

The data centers drove to a new model (client-server) based on subscription. Companies chose this model to reduce their costs. They don’t need to purchase expensive hardware and constantly upgrade it. Instead, they use cloud services, where a third party is responsible for the hardware resources and often for the IT support as well.

The future challenges of the data center

The exponential growth of digital data and emerging technologies mean challenges for data centers, such as:

  • Scalability. Data centers must be able to scale their infrastructure rapidly to accommodate increasing demand for computing resources, storage capacity, and network bandwidth.
  • Energy efficiency. Data centers consume vast amounts of energy, leading to significant environmental impact and operational costs.
  • Security and compliance. Protecting sensitive information against cyber threats, ensuring data privacy and integrity, and complying with industry-specific regulations and international standards are not minor challenges.
  • Edge computing. The Edge computing architectures demand data centers to deliver low-latency processing, real-time analytics, and reliable connectivity to support IoT devices, autonomous vehicles, and other edge computing applications.
  • Hybrid and multi-cloud deployments. Data centers must support seamless integration, interoperability, and workload mobility across hybrid and multi-cloud environments. Challenges include data migration, workload orchestration, vendor lock-in, and cost management in heterogeneous IT landscapes.
  • Emerging technologies. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, 5G, and quantum computing present both opportunities and challenges for data centers. They are the next chapters of the history of data centers, which must stay abreast of emerging trends, evaluate their impact on infrastructure and operations, and adapt to new use cases and workload requirements.

Conclusion

As computing technology continues evolving, data centers will grow in scale, sophistication, and importance. They will become essential components of the digital infrastructure supporting modern society. Many challenges are to be addressed, but also many advanced technologies and innovations are in development right now. We will witness how they integrate and complement each other to give rise to a new generation of ultra-modern data centers. We are already looking forward to updating this article!

Meanwhile, if you want to see a truly modern data center, you are welcome to check our Sofia Data Center.

Some data centres are retrospectively fitted. For example, in Leeds there is a data centre that used to be a church. [ED1]

I edited this sentence, and most of the link disappeared. It’ll need to be added back in. [ED2]

8 replies on “The History of Data Centers”

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