The History of Data Centers: An Exponential Evolution

Posted by Duke Robertson on March 22, 2024

It’s doubtful that the developers of the ENIAC could have envisioned how data centers would evolve. That evolution has been exponential, from housing mammoth machines based on vacuum tubes and wires to today’s powerful servers that can mimic human intelligence.

Rapidly changing technology has dictated the design of data center facilities and created many different types of data centers to serve distinct purposes. As data centers have evolved, their benefits and importance have grown rapidly. Here’s a brief look back in time and a vision of the near future.

1940s and 1950s

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the first electronic digital programmable general-purpose computer. The U.S. military designed the ENIAC to calculate artillery firing tables. However, it was not completed until late 1945. Its first program was a thermonuclear weapon feasibility study.

The ENIAC was large, weighing more than 27 tons and occupying 300 square feet of space. Its thousands of vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, relays, and crystal diodes could only perform numeric calculations. Punch cards served as data storage.

The first data center (called a “mainframe”) was built in 1945 to house the ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania. Additional facilities were built at West Point, the Pentagon, and CIA headquarters in the 1950s. Because the ENIAC was used for defense and intelligence projects, secrecy and security were important. The data centers also had huge fans and vents to cool the massive machines. Even the first data center needed to consider airflow and cooling.

1960s and 1970s

The development of the transistor transformed the computing industry. Bell Labs developed the first transistorized computer, called TRADIC (TRAnsistor Digital Computer), in 1954. IBM introduced its first completely transistorized computer in 1955. The IBM 608 was half the size of a comparable system based on vacuum tubes and required 90 percent less power. It cost $83,210 in 1957.

The smaller size and lower cost of transistorized computers made them suitable for commercial applications. By the 1960s, data centers (or “computer rooms”) were built in office buildings. The new mainframes were faster and more powerful than early machines, with innovations such as memory and storage. Reliability was critical because the entire enterprise IT infrastructure ran on one system. Data centers were designed to ensure ideal operating conditions. In other words, like cooling and airflow, data center downtime was a concern even in the 60’s and 70’s.

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1980s and 1990s

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, computers got smaller and smaller. Minicomputers and microcomputers began to replace mainframes, and data centers adapted accordingly. The first personal computers were introduced in 1981. PCs were adopted rapidly and installed everywhere, with minimal concern about environmental conditions.

By the early 1990s, PCs were connecting to “servers” in the client-server model. This gave rise to the first true “data centers,” where multiple microcomputers and PC servers replaced mainframes. The .com boom of the mid-1990s drove the construction of ever-larger data center facilities with hundreds or even thousands of servers. VMware introduced the concept of virtualization in 1999.

2000s and 2010s

The dot-com bubble peaked by March 2000 and began crashing over the next two years. Tech companies lost funding and much of their capital investment. However, the buildout of the Internet backbone during the dot-com era led to a new concept in the early 2000s — cloud services. pioneered the concept of delivering applications via the web in 1999. Amazon Web Services began offering compute, storage, and other IT infrastructure in 2006. This led to the buildout of ever-larger data centers to support these cloud services. Those facilities grew into what are now known as hyperscale data centers, often surpassing a million square feet and serving as the backbone for the largest technology platforms in the world. 

By 2012, 38 percent of organizations were using cloud services. Cloud service providers needed facilities that allowed them to scale rapidly while minimizing operating costs. Facebook launched the Open Computer Project in 2011, providing best practices and specifications for developing economical and energy-efficient data centers. 

2020s and Beyond

Data center operators face unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Rising energy costs and sustainability initiatives are forcing them to rethink their power and cooling models. At the same time, artificial intelligence, 5G cellular, and other innovative technologies are enabling the delivery of new products and services. Data centers must find ways to support these applications efficiently and continue to drive down energy usage.

Data centers have come a long way. Their use cases have evolved from top-secret military purposes to near-ubiquity. They have their own acronyms and terminology and are poised for even more growth as new technologies such as AI, IoT, and 5G mature. 

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Posted by Duke Robertson on March 22, 2024

Duke is the Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at Enconnex. He brings over 25 years of experience in a wide range of disciplines including product management, design, manufacturing, and development. Previously, Duke was at Chatsworth Products where he spent 14 years managing all products for cabinets, communication infrastructure, and containment

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