Apple launches iCloud; here’s what powers it

Apple's $1 billion North Carolina data center built to power iCloud services.


Apple officially launched its much-hyped iCloud suite of services at its Worldwide Developer Conference Monday, and although the capabilities are sure to be the talk of the town among consumers, it’s Apple’s cloud infrastructure that makes it all work. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said as much during his WWDC keynote by closing with an image of — and shout-out to — the company’s new iDataCenter in Maiden, N.C. Details about the technology that will power iCloud have been sparse, but those who’ve been watching it have uncovered some interesting information that sheds some light on what Apple is doing under the covers.

Probably the most-interesting data is about the iDataCenter itself. It has garnered so much attention because of its sheer scale, which suggests Apple has very big plans for the future of iCloud. As Rich Miller at Data Center Knowledge has reported over the past couple of years, the iDataCenter:

  • Will cover about 500,000 square feet — about five times the size of the company’s existing Silicon Valley data center.
  • Cost about $1 billion to build, which is about twice what Google and Microsoft generally invest in their cloud data centers.
  • Puts a focus on high availability, including clustering technology from IBM, Veritas and Oracle.
  • Was set to open in spring after delays postponed an October launch.
  • Is only one of two similarly sized data centers planned for the site.

The other big Apple infrastructure news came in April, with reports that the company had ordered 12 petabytes of worth of Isilon file storage from EMC. It hasn’t been confirmed where all that storage will be housed — in the iDataCenter, in Apple’s Newark, Calif. data center or in the new space it has leased in Silicon Valley, or spread among the three facilities — but its mere presence suggests Apple is serious about storing and delivering files of all types. As Steve Jobs noted during the keynote, iCloud is the post-PC-world replacement for syncing everything — photos, audio, documents and more — across all your Apple devices. The company even rewrote the core MobileMe functions as iCloud apps and, much like Google with Google Apps, is giving them away for free.

Despite all that storage capacity, though, Apple won’t be housing individual copies of everybody’s media files. Even 12 petabytes would fill up fairly fast with the combined audio of Apple users worldwide, which is why Apple’s focus is still on local storage for iTunes. This way, instead of storing millions of individual copies of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” for individual customers, Apple can house minimal copies of each individual song and sync purchased files to devices based on purchased licenses. Even iTunes Match merely applies iTunes licenses to files within users’ personal libraries that weren’t originally purchased via iTunes, rather than uploading each track into the cloud before syncing.

This differs from both Amazon’s and Google’s cloud-based music services, which literally store your music in cloud. That could help explain why Apple will charge only $24.99 a year for the iTunes Match service instead of charging customers per gigabyte. This model and the huge storage infrastructure will come in handy, too, should Apple step up its cloud-based video services, which bring even greater capacity issues to the table, as well as those around encoding for delivery to specific device types. (A skeptic might say that Apple’s reliance on local storage is antithetical to the cloud’s overall them of access anywhere (not just on your Apple devices), but that’s a story for another day.)

But Apple’s cloud story doesn’t start and stop with iCloud and its related services; in fact, the cloud touches almost every aspect of pretty much every new service and feature discussed during the WWDC keynote. Every time Apple is syncing anything — from application data to system settings to media — it’s touching Apple’s new cloud computing infrastructure. That’s why Jobs highlighted the iDataCenter in his keynote and why Apple recently hired noted cloud data center expert Kevin Timmons from Microsoft. When you’re selling as many different types of devices as Apple does, the real value of the cloud is in syncing data among devices and users, and that requires a robust cloud infrastructure.

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