Enterprise Linux Log

Oct 23 2009   6:05PM GMT

Servers in space: The future of data centers?

Leah Rosin Leah Rosin Profile: Leah Rosin

I have to say, I was immediately intrigued when I read the description of Server Sky. I had heard of floating water-based data centers, far north geothermal powered data centers, and an array of containerized and inventive data center options that all are focused on cheap energy, and greener concept. But until the October 22, 2009, meeting of the Eugene, Oregon IT Pro Forum, I had not thought of data centers in space (which, even while typing it, I think needs a series of exclamation points). But Keith Lofstrom has. Now, before the Star Wars fans start imagining a massive death-star-like space station filled with servers and astronauts/system admins, stop, you’re going to be disappointed.

I descended into the basement of the Eugene City Brewery (where else would IT geeks meet?), ordered my pint of Rogue Chocolate Stout and joined a smattering of local IT pros who had gathered to have a good brew and talk geek with their peers. It was in this darkened room, with large brew kettles visible through the glass windows behind the projector screen that I was introduced to Lofstrom’s vision of a data center in space.

Location is important in this story – the location of the data center, location of the presentation, and the location of the engineer. Lofstrom lives in Portland, Oregon, a city that has the slogan “It’s not easy being green,” within in a state that has put considerable effort behind attracting green industry. His silvery white hair is neatly pulled back into a low stub ponytail, perfect for fitting under his bicycle helmet as he commutes around the city. His attire is casual, with little frameless glasses that, along with the hair combined to evoke historic images of Benjamin Franklin. It’s clear he’s a thinker, a dreamer even, and he’s passionate about this idea.

Loftstrom explained that it all began when he heard a presentation about data center energy use, and the fact that as we all watch more videos, post more photos, and use the internet, the demand for energy from data centers will only increase. Much has been written about this problem and possible solutions so I won’t bore you with details. But to illustrate, Lofstrom shared the August 9, 2009, Dilbert comic:

Dilbert.com

Pretty gloomy, but the facts behind this image can be motivational to an engineer like Lofstrom.
He passed around a small device with a flash drive and a couple Ethernet ports that he uses as a firewall for his computer system. This device, he explained, inspired him to think about small physical computing devices that could be solar powered, and Server Sky was born. We all looked at the eight-and-a-half by eleven sheet of paper that he had prepared. On it was a diagram of the Server-sat.

Then Lofstrom explained that the diagram we saw was to scale.

Immediately, audience members had questions. Lofstrom explained that he would get to most of them through the course of the presentation. Incidentally, the presentation was given via a presentation software application he had developed that he hoped to get some more collaboration on because, he said, “If nothing else comes from this, I’d like to get this presentation software improved and kill PowerPoint.”

Lofstrom spent the next hour plus going over orbital physics, Moore’s Law, Newton, light pressure, satellite technology, space junk, and biology. He’s really been doing a lot of thinking on this, but admits he wants and needs more minds focused on it. With a background in open source software, Lofstrom is hoping to keep the project open to contribution from others for as long as possible, “before the investors come in and lock everything up.”

If you’re interested in finding out more information, you can view a recorded video of his presentation from Linux Fest Northwest 2009.

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  • Leah Rosin
    [...] As we’re all well aware, power is one of the most significant expenditures in any given data center – and as it just so happens, one of the greatest advantages to situating a server outside of Earth’s orbit is the sheer amount of power available to a server equipped with a solar array. We’re talking billions upon billions of Watts, all of which could easily be captured and converted to spare power with the right equipment. A speculative model, known as Server Sky, was planned out back in 2009 by an engineer named Keith Lofstrom. [...]
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