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What Data Center Designers Can Learn From Legos 210

1sockchuck writes "It takes most companies at least a year to build a new data center. Digital Realty Trust says it can build a new data center in just 20 weeks using standard designs and modular components that can be assembled on site. The company equates its 'building blocks' approach to data centers to building with Legos — albeit with customized parts (i.e. the Millennium Falcon Lego kit). Microsoft is taking a similar approach, packaging generators, switchgear and UPS units into pre-assembled components for rapid assembly. Is this the future of data center design?"
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What Data Center Designers Can Learn From Legos

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @09:28AM (#27858745) Journal

    Is this the future of data center design?

    I'm going to assume you're talking very very large data centers here as it wouldn't make sense to streamline this for a few "blocks." But I think this is an already pretty pervasive idea. Why, we have already talked about Google's ideas on server 'blocks' [slashdot.org] and data 'pod' [slashdot.org] technology for their sharded databases. While I'm not sure if this high level design inherently affects relational databases negatively, it sure seems to be the future of data centers.

    Google's strategy sounds even more like homogeneous Lego blocks than either of the two article's solutions.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cerberusss ( 660701 )

      While I'm not sure if this high level design inherently affects relational databases negatively, it sure seems to be the future of data centers.

      If you build apps using Google App Engine, the APIs offer you an API to BigTable [wikipedia.org], a non-relational data store. There is no relational database support.

  • Legos (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 07, 2009 @09:30AM (#27858783)

    The plural of "lego" is "lego".

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Grax ( 529699 )

      I played with Legos when I was a kid and my kids play with Legos now. They don't play with "Lego" as they think that refers to a single modular building brick.

      I know a lot of other kids that play with Legos that don't have the time or inclination to say they play with "Lego", "Lego bricks", "Lego playsets", or "Lego compatible modular building playsets". They just play with Legos.

      • by Chrisq ( 894406 )
        Also the metaphor of generic bricks to build anything wouldn't work today. The kits are all custom; a lego bat plane, lego race car, lego helicopter, etc. They include custom parts as well as the generic bricks.

        It's a shame really, instead of being an imaginative open process it has become following the instructions to make the model in the right way. Having said that my kids will do this once and then combine bits from the various kits and use them in the good old way to make something entirely different
        • Yes, but after building them according to the instructions, who actually played with them for more than a minute before disassembling them and rebuilding them using parts from various kits? I had quite a few of the "space patrol" lego kits, so I ended up with a lot of wings, cockpits, engines, etc., and used them to make cool spaceships, rovers, and stations of my own design.

          I found that building things with rectangular pieces was very boring unless you wanted to build nothing other than houses, or were bui

        • I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, as it's teaching your kids how to follow instructions. I'll admit to despairing when the kid from next door to my parents brought his Lego X-Wing over, which clearly hadn't been built properly and was almost falling apart.

          What your kids are doing is exactly what I used to do, and I think it works in a way because with model kits, you get a larger variety of pieces, which allows you to be more imaginative in what you build. I always found the variety of pieces

      • When I was a kid, we had to dig up the pavers if we wanted to play with bricks. Now, get off my lawn!
        • Let me guess: You threw them at each other. And this is how it came that you have to stay in the basement now. Right? *ducks* ^^

      • Do they refer to an individual brick as "a lego"? That just sounds wrong to me.

        Sort of like referring to a single water molecule as "a water", and then referring to a collection of water molecules, say a glassful, as "waters".

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Can someone explain the different rules used by American English?

      The "legos" plural form is a good example, but how about the use of mixed tense in a single sentence like "Did you brush your teeth yet?"

      The different pronunciation rules are interesting as well. For example, in most English speaking countries Iraq is "ee-rack" but in the US it's "Eye-rack". Another good example is 'solder', in standard English "sol-der" but in American "sod-er" (silent "l").

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) *

        Can someone explain the different rules used by American English?

        Absolutely not.

      • by Inda ( 580031 )
        Standard english? That's a new one to me.

        Over here, one speaks the Queen's english. If you wish to speak correctly, copy the Queen.

        If you want to talk like a Yank, raise your voice, raise it again, add some twang and use a lot of TLAs.

        And it's Lego by the way. Anyone saying different is just being difficult. As for the single block argument: one'er, two'er, eight'er, flat-eight...
        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          The Queen's English is not standard. Standard English is what the BBC news presenters (used to) use. Approximately 3 words per second, largely accent free delivery.

      • English speaking countries Iraq is "ee-rack" but in the US it's "Eye-rack"

        This reminds me of a sign in an antique store: "You break it you bought it"

        I guess that means we get to name it, too.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          That was pretty funny, and also missing a comma :)

          Actually, misusing the comma must be the most common English mistake. "Eats, shoots and leaves" is the classic example.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        I thought of another good one: "I could care less". Seems to be the American version of "I couldn't care less", with the same meaning but appearing to say exactly the opposite.

        • That's sarcasm. Welcome to America, enjoy your stay.

          • That's stupid American sarcasm. What do you mean by a sarcastic "I could care less"? That you care a lot? Or not at all? It's stupid on the face of it and indefensible.

            • Sarcasm:

              When I say the opposite of what I mean. If you're too dumb to figure out that I meant the opposite, I laugh at you.

      • If you compare
        a) British/Canadian/Indian/Australian/NZ English
        b) U.S. English
        spelling and pronunciation,
        it is invariably the case that the American version (b) is the one that reflects either -

        ignorance of special rules of the language and therefore a resort to simplified general rules,

        or a lazier and more utilitarian use of a subset of the language vocabulary and its grammar rules.

        e.g. (First form not used by most Americans)

        -Lego plural of Lego is a special case (possibly related to Latin or Greek derived

        • through instead of thru is special-case pronunciation and spelling

          Even in America, "thru" is thoroughly non-standard spelling. I've never understood what the hell possesses people to spell the word that way, to be honest.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          I'm don't think it's just ignorance on the American part. As I understand it, there was a concerted effort to simplify the language, the most obvious result of which is the simplified spelling of words like "night", "light", "analogue", "catalogue", "through" etc.

          What I find interesting is that Americans seem to actively try to use what would be considered in academic circles as incorrect English. In the UK there are widely varying accents and many local words or phrases, but they do tend to follow at least

          • Ironically, there's a good argument that, because human memory works on a "remember the exceptions" basis, a simpler set of rules will encourage forgetting the existence or meaning of some words, and thus will lead to reduction in usable vocabulary. Some words were remembered (their existence remembered and their meaning remembered) BECAUSE of their unusual grammar or spelling rule, and/or the word family lineage patterns that marble-texture the full version of English.

            Remove this texture and these landmark

            • Like, you know, I go:
              When we eviscerate and castrate the language,
              we get...
              He goes: ...words with no guts no power.
              Then she goes:
              As if

      • "Did you brush your teeth yet?" is incorrect.

        It should be:

        "Have you brushed your teeth yet?"


        "Did you brush your teeth already?"

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          "Did you brush your teeth already?"

          That is wrong too. You should say "Have you brushed your teeth already?"

          You can't have "already" and "did", the tense does not match. If you want to use "did", you need to say "did you brush your teeth earlier?".

    • by eean ( 177028 ) <slashdotNO@SPAMmonroe.nu> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @10:13AM (#27859389) Homepage

      If you look at the website:
      http://www.lego.com/eng/info/default.asp?page=fairplay [lego.com]

      Of course if its an adjective then "legos" is nonsense.

      In common usage it is in fact a noun: the OED defines "Lego" as a noun. The plural of a noun has an 's', with the handful of well-established exceptions.

      Who decided that LEGO was an exception? Not the LEGO Group who say its only an adjective. So I think its the fact that the LEGO Group never says "LEGOs" (since they always uses it as an adjective) caused misguided pedantic people (or otherwise any lover of arbitrary rules) to decide that its a plural noun.

      So put me in the legos camp. :)

    • Re:Legos (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @10:38AM (#27859841)

      The plural of "lego" is "lego".

      The distinction only matters to trademark lawyers, because to "protect" their trademark they would argue that there's no such thing as a "Lego" noun, only an adjective.

      The rest of us non-pedants don't give a shit and call them Legos, because in everyday English each individual brick is an individual Lego. Saying "I built this house out of Lego!" sounds prissy and affected. If you disagree, you ought to look deep inside your personality and consider whether *you* are prissy and affected.

      • While I wouldn't say "I built this house out of Lego", I would say "Hey! Look at this Lego house I built!"

        In fact, now that I think about it, I probably would say "I built this house out of lego (lowercase l)" because thats what it is. I have a box of lego, not a box of legos. I give the gift of lego to my nephew, not legos. When I need to clean up, I don't clean up my legos, but my lego.

        Meh .. I guess I'm prissy and affected, have been since I was a wee boy, calling it lego. Poor me.

    • As soon as I saw the topic, I giggled, wondering how many posts it would take before the pedantic undercurrent brought this up :-)

  • Someone's going to retort that this is only because America hasn't built a new nuke power plant in ages, but the fact of the matter is that nuke power in Canada and France is reliable, efficient, and cheap because they have settled on a standard plant design. Contrast this with the fully customized design for each American nuke plant and you can see why we still consider nuclear power to be expensive and dangerous.

    Extend this to software design. Sure, using standard libraries may mean that you are possibly

  • I had this idea ages ago: computer blocks, which could plug together. Storage, processors, media, PSUs, batteries, interfaces... just bricks that you stack together using some universal power-and-data bus connector on each plug (imagine Lego blocks about eight inches long).

    • by MBCook ( 132727 )

      Congratulations, you've invented a variation on the S-100 bus [wikipedia.org].

      Now with the ability to do external PCI express, this could be reasonably possible again, maybe. I'd think you'd have big signal integrity problems.

    • "computer blocks, which could plug together. Storage, processors, media, PSUs, batteries, interfaces... just bricks that you stack together"

      Thermaltake has a new modular case that is similar to that. [techpowerup.com]
    • After seeing 2001 and 2010 I envisioned the same thing, but I imagined them being powered by induction and optical data connections. That way they're waterproof. Today I would probably also imagine in some water connections for cooling — all the liabilities thereof vanish when you're not using electrical connections. Some twenty years later, we're still using copper-fingered plastic sockets :(

  • lego in the plural (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Speare ( 84249 ) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @09:46AM (#27859011) Homepage Journal
    I saw the "legonotlegos" tag on this story. Anyone who has read the paper materials that come with Lego sets knows the language about calling them "Lego(tm) bricks" not "Legos." Yes, the Lego company feels they have to write that in their products, because they have to protect the trademark in order to keep trademark protection in many world markets. However, that does not mean that regular people must actually follow that usage. You wanna call 'em Legos? Go ahead. You want to be the ten millionth middle-manager who tries to explain a business model or operational strategy using toy blocks of a certain name? Go ahead. The metaphor is already cliched, but go ahead. Just like Oreos (not Oreo(tm) cookies), or Kleenexes (not Kleenex(tm) brand facial tissues), people should not feel constrained in how they phrase popular culture references.
    • by Xeth ( 614132 ) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @10:19AM (#27859515) Journal
      But if we can't be pedantic about our specializations, how can we feel superior to the laity?
    • Just like Oreos (not Oreo(tm) cookies), or Kleenexes (not Kleenex(tm) brand facial tissues),

      I think you mean Kleenices.

    • by whydna ( 9312 )

      It's due to trademark laws... the IP lawyers where I work remind us that trademarked brand terms should be used as adjectives and not nouns (despite the fact that they're generally referred to as nouns amongst "lay people"). For instance, Apple refers to the iPod(R) as the "iPod(R) mobile digital device" if you dig deeply into their docs.

      It's the same thing for Lego... they're Lego(R) bricks, despite the common vernacular of Legos. :D

    • The Kleenex thing has always fascinated me as it hasn't made the leap across the Atlantic. In the UK you ask for a tissue or a hankie, but never a Kleenex. Here, Kleenex is still very much a specific brand. To my knowledge this is also the case with Xerox. We photocopy things, we don't Xerox them.

      • Even in the US, I think Kleenex must be a regional thing. In my experience "tissue" is much more common. Maybe it's just that my family never bought Kleenex brand anyway.
    • The plural of Kleenex is Kleeneces.
  • You should say "Lego Bricks", not "Legos".
    "Lego" is the name of the company.

  • Maybe this is what they were meaning instead? For a low fee one of the elves of Lord of the Rings will personally assist you in the construction and improvement of your data center!
  • by 3.5 stripes ( 578410 ) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @10:39AM (#27859849)

    And two about data centers.

    News for nerds, or news for obsessive man children?

    • by Tokerat ( 150341 )

      A good portion of us spend all day building/operating data centers, and the rest of us likely spend our day writing software that will go in those data centers in some fashion or other - forgive us if we hear LEGO and take a short break to go "WHEEEEEEEEEEEEE I LOVES THOSE"

  • Demand matters (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwater@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @10:42AM (#27859921) Homepage

    "The company equates its "building blocks" approach to data centers to building with Legos -- albeit with customized parts (i.e. the Millennium Falcon Lego kit). Microsoft is taking a similar approach, packaging generators, switchgear and UPS units into pre-assembled components for rapid assembly. Is this the future of data center design?"

    It only makes sense to maintain the infrastructure to build the building blocks so long as data centers are being rolled out at a furious pace - something that cannot continue forever.

    I suspect the 'Lego' builders are betting on vendor lock-in to feed the bottom line over the long term. Once you buy their bricks, you're pretty much stuck with their interface and thus will be coming back to them for upgrades and renovation.

    • Not necessarily. The high-build rate just funds the building of the Lego-like datacenter infrastructure. Then once that infrastructure (design, manufacturing, distribution, etc.) is paid for, it becomes cost effective to build all datacenters that way because it's now cheaper and faster. And the guy building them makes money hand-over-foot.

  • Will someone please talk about data centers?
    • Sure. They're like LEGO, right?

  • by ebuck ( 585470 ) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @11:21AM (#27860663)

    I learned that given a large enough supply of Lego bricks, their flaws become readily apparent. We owned a day care centre, so I had literally twenty pounds or more Lego bricks at my disposal (after hours and then after we sold the centre).

    Legos are heavily dependent on gravity, the gripping power of a brick is impressive (especially if they are new), but torque is more impressive. There is a limit to how far you can build a Lego ledge, and that includes shoring it up with Lego bracing (diagonal Lego bracing is more susceptible to torque). The torque doesn't apply well to a brick that's designed for straight down pressure.

    Legos are heavily bound by gravity. The compressive forces of the walls provide grip. In my attempts to rebuild cathedral wall structures, the compression could not be balanced between the flying buttresses and the inner walls, so the buttresses mainly provided a stabilizing effect. The problem was that at about five or so feet, the bottom bricks would not hold because the weight of the bricks above expanded the plastic enough to negate the brick's grip.

    Legos provide little resistance to upward pressure (by design this is how you release them, to a degree). This means that as structures sway, you effectively reduce the gripping power of some connection within the structure. This is the equivalent to stress related failure. A larger Lego structure must be glued or it will fail due to these internal forces.

    Finally if you attempt to fix some of these issues by sandwiching critical joints, you add mass, which compounds the problem in other joints. Shoring up those eventually just increases the number of locations where failure could occur and statistics steps in and assures at least one failure, somewhere.

    I won't even go into the issues with worn bricks, because those are obvious.

    Few data centres expand to the size of our largest data centres, but by "designing like Lego" we will simplify things. The danger is that we might standardize on an architecture that has built-in limits. The architecture we currently have isn't as clean in vision as a Lego brick, but it already scales better than the Lego brick, even if it needs to do so by the default structure being slightly less elegant.

    These Lego data centre visionaries have the right goal, making it simple, but they might be going about it in the wrong way. I've never heard a rational argument detailing how Lego bricks and data centre components are the same, so this might turn out to be a bad analogy implemented in hardware. Time will tell, but the centres we currently have did not come as the result of people deliberately trying to make data centres more complex.

    • by cowscows ( 103644 ) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @12:02PM (#27861397) Journal

      I think the solution is pretty much similar to the solution that Lego uses when they come up against the limitations of their pieces. They introduce additional pieces. You could even think of the glue that is used on larger structures in this way. It wasn't one of the original elements, but all of those original elements were designed with enough flexibility that they can be glued together.

      The point of standardization isn't necessarily to come up with a complete system that will cover any and every possible need throughout the past, present, and future. It's to provide some useful building blocks to make the easy 90% of a project even easier. And if done well, the standardization will allow for enough flexibility to make that last 10% possible. And since you saved so much time and money on that first 90% because you had all those nice standard and mass produced parts to choose from, you'll have extra resources to really get the final details right.

      • by ebuck ( 585470 )

        While I agree with you in sentiment, I still arrive back at my questions, "How do the current standards in place not facilitate the current server farms in place?", and "How does a Lego analogy hold up at the scale we are talking about?"

        Most Lego bricks have only eight nubs on the top. Yes, there are custom bricks, but the bulk of the Lego trade is the 2x4. How does that scale when you need to attach 8 2x4s to the top of a 2x4? Eight nubs could provide eight points of connection, but geometry gets in the

        • Well yeah, if your standard sucks, it's going to cause problems down the road. If it sucks so bad that you have to ignore it 80% of the time in order to get anything done, then it's not really a standard anymore.

          I wasn't defending a particular standard for this application as much as I was trying to express that very often the benefits of having a standard easily outweigh the downsides.

          I'm not sure how closely one would want to pattern a data center standard after the system that lego uses. I think that usi

    • by Tokerat ( 150341 )

      Oh my God, will everyone stop talking about LEGO and... Oh, you DID talk about data centers.

  • The concept of bricking out components in such a way that they may be assembled like Legoâ Brand building blocks (or whatever the 50 people who think it's important seem to think it should be called) can be ported to the concept of software design, as it already has in some regards. It's called Encapsulation. It's in very good practice when you're not the only one hacking at the code.

    Why can't conventional buildings use this concept? Granted you wouldn't do it on a single family house, but when you
  • But do the data center modules come with glow-in-the-dark blocks?

"God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh." - Voltaire