If iCloud runs on Azure and Amazon what is Apple's data center for?
Written by Alex Armstrong   
Sunday, 04 September 2011

I Programmer puts two rumours together and asks if adds up to the truth or a flight of fantasy. Who is hosting iCloud and what is Apple's huge data center for?

Rumour isn't news and as a rule we try to stay away from anything that doesn't have a verifiable source but in this case the story is so curious that it is worth airing just to see if there is a verifiable source out there who might like to respond. There are two parts to this particular rumour.

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According to The Register Apple's iCloud is hosted by Microsoft's Azure and Amazon's AWS. Obviously if this was true Apple wouldn't want it known and hence it is claimed that both parties have signed a non-disclosure agreement. Equally obviously running iCloud is the sort of publicity that both Microsoft and Amazon would find very valuable. It does seem reasonable that Apple might sub-contract the cloud hosting of iCloud because after all it doesn't have much of a track record in running a data center, let alone the complex infrastructure needed for a fully redundant distributed cloud architecture.

The real question is why pick Amazon and Microsoft to host iCloud? These are two very different cloud solutions.  You can't simply take an application that runs on Azure and run it on EC2 or vice versa. The report states that Apple is using a full Azure application with Azure SQL for storage. The data is being striped between Microsoft and Amazon but no word on how the load is being balanced or what storage is being used on EC2.

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The problems of making the two systems work together would be simplified by using EC2 Windows virtual machine but this still isn't the Azure app fabric. While you can see how it could be achieved it seems like a great deal of work to put in just to keep your options open.

Then we have the second observation that fits in with the first rumour. Back in June Robert Cringely wrote blog that seemed amusing but slightly crazy. He did some sums and worked out that Apple's new $1 billion data center in Maiden, NC. was simply too big to be real. Given that the center has one million square feet he calculates, using reasonable assumptions, that it can house roughly 7 million 1U rack servers or more with taller racks. If you compare this to the estimated 2000 racks needed to store and serve every movie and TV show ever made you can see that there is a mismatch. As he pointed out, Google's estimated 1 million servers would still only require 14% of the capacity.

 

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So what is the data center for?

Cringely wrote at the time:

"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."

Well this seems a step too far, but it isn't impossible. However, if Apple designed the center to run iCloud and then decided that having someone else do the job then this could be the reason that it appears to be sitting idle. Cringely visited the site and describes it as "locked down".

So problem solved. No not really. You still have to explain why Apple built a data center that forced  Cringely to comment:

"I can’t imagine a workload that would need even a tenth of that data center."

So we have two good conspiracy theories that seem to go together, but do they add up?

Go and read Cringely's account and see if you agree with his figures or is there a missing factor? Could the Amazon/Microsoft provisioning be a temporary situation before the mightly Apple data center swings into action with some architecture that needs that much power?

Or is it all the final groan of a story that has burbled along most of the summer?

 

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