Things at work were moving slowly, and we were running into problems on all fronts that threatened to result in unacceptable delays. If the servers couldn’t be ready to be mass-produced and delivered starting in December, there would be no choice but to switch back to using the conventional servers for which the facility was originally designed. Thermal sensitivity of the circuitry was turning out to be a major headache, with component failure happening frequently during freeze-thaw cycles. We could avoid the problem by increasing and lowering the temperature slowly, but that required a degree of control over the liquid nitrogen cooling system that I hadn’t anticipated. It wasn’t so much a problem during replacement of the servers as the new servers were cached inside the server cabinet, and it was fairly simple to regulate the temperature at which they were kept.
The problem was that server activity varied widely over time, and that resulted in large fluctuations in the amount of heat generated. It wasn’t a problem when everything ran hot, but it was a big problem when everything was chilled with supercooled nitrogen. The temperature variations that resulted were small but rapid, and it was the speed of the temperature change that did the damage. The circuit boards already had multiple temperature sensors, and those could be accessed directly through the server software. The use of that data to alter the degree of cooling was the obvious response, but the addition of any kind of regulatory valves to the liquid nitrogen tubing and nozzles would have involved adding an unacceptable layer of complexity where space was at a premium.
It was actually Shaun who came up with a rather ingenious solution. The server software used load balancing to maximize server speed and equalize wear without regard to efficiency. That was a good part of the reason for the large variations in temperature in the first place. When one server was deemed to have been busier than the others, server load was shifted away from it to other servers to give it a rest, causing it to cool rapidly. By adjusting the load to maintain a steady temperature, thermal damage could be avoided without compromising speed. There was no longer a need to even look at balancing server wear, as maintaining a constant temperature did that automatically. Remarkably, doing so improved server efficiency, cutting power consumption by an additional ten percent. Without Shaun’s input, the effects of load balancing might have easily been missed.
In the meantime, Dan and Dom had a working prototype of the nitrogen refrigeration system. Taking filtered air from outside and mixing it with nitrogen recycled from the servers compressed the two to the point that carbon dioxide and other impurities were removed, and then oxygen was liquified and stored for use by the staff as needed during repairs. The remaining gas was further compressed, yielding liquid nitrogen that was pure enough to be sold as medical grade. The liquid nitrogen could be pumped into the server cabinets and distributed to the individual circuit boards inside. In the meantime, the waste heat from the condensers could be used to heat the building, with the excess waste heat dumped outside. The system was ready to be scaled up for installation in the building once the final server design was confirmed, but other developments overtook the design, and it would never be built.
There were two proposed designs that were being planned for the server stacks, one of which could accommodate 1024 servers in a single cabinet and another that could hold 8192 servers. The smaller version would be easier to assemble, place and replace, but there was no getting around the fact that the larger design was significantly more efficient and less costly to maintain. The tradeoff was that the larger design was four meters in diameter, occupying 12½ square meters of floor space, or 135 square feet. With most existing server rooms, that wouldn’t even fit through the door, whereas the more compact design could be moved around with ease. The first step in evaluating the two designs was to build a quarter-scale model of each. There were six major decisions that were made during the scale-modeling phase.
First, it was discovered right away that the stacked segmental design I’d proposed wasn’t practical. Although it made it easier to assemble and had the potential to make it easier to service, the amount of disassembly required to service it essentially meant taking the entire thing offline, defeating the purpose of the segmental design, yet the smaller design couldn’t work without it. However, it was quite feasible to fabricate the larger design as a single-server rack of enormous proportions, and by removing the internal segments, enough additional space would be generated to double the number of servers inside. That was the second decision, and it meant that the larger design could accommodate a total of 16,384 servers, doubling the number of servers per square foot.
In a flash of inspiration, I realized that if we mass produced the things, we could deliver complete 16k server-data mini-centers that could be run essentially as a turnkey operation. We could place small, distributed data centers all over the world. Moreover, we could sell these things for use by anyone needing to serve eight petabytes of singly redundant data or six petabytes of multiple redundant data.
The third decision was based on the fact that the internal core of the larger design was big enough to accommodate the entire nitrogen cooling system. I’d originally thought of and rejected that idea, as it wouldn’t have left sufficient room for replacement of the servers inside the smaller toroidal design. With a 3¼ meter inner diameter, even after allowing for the backplane, switches and robotics, there was more than enough room for multiple compressors, condensers and nitrogen storage tanks. With a heat exchanger on top, much as with the more expensive built-in refrigerators people installed in their homes, the entire refrigeration system would be self-contained and more than twice as efficient. By making the liquid-nitrogen refrigeration plant internal to the data-center cabinet, the system would be even more of a salable, turnkey operation. Ironically, with that design it was far more efficient to simply dump the excess heat into the server room and use a conventional HVAC system to dispose of the heat to the outside. We were gonna need air conditioning after all.
Fourth, there was the need for a way to repair the backplane, switches and other internal components. In the original design, that was done by segmenting the stack of server cabinets and separating the segments to access each one. With the larger design, most repairs could be done robotically and remotely. The technician controlling the robotic arms didn’t even need to be in the same facility at all. For example, an Applazon data-center technician in Omaha could fix a problem at a data center in Cape Town. It was an elegant way to keep servers running all over the world while concentrating all expertise in one or two locations.
My original concept called for the use of a single robotic arm just for server replacement. By using three or four robotic arms, we could repair just about anything and expected that the data racks could remain sealed and in continuous operation for years at a time. We were contracting with one of the major aerospace engineering firms to supply the robotics, and they would be sending a team to install robotic arms in our first prototype data mini-center.
The fifth decision came from the fact that the circular design was much more compact than a conventional server rack and would take up less than half as much floor space per server. That left more than half of the building that was already under construction empty and without a defined purpose. We’d assumed Applazon would eventually find a use for the extra space, but if we were planning to market and sell our data mini-centers, why not use the space to manufacture them?
The decision to do so came directly from Corporate, but that introduced a major problem.
With a diameter of four meters, the server cabinet was too big to fit through a standard loading-dock door, a foot too wide to fit on a standard, wide-load flatbed trailer and double the width that could fit inside a standard shipping container. With the segmental design, the individual segments could have been mounted sideways on flatbed trucks and rail cars. With the switch to a unibody construct, the only way to ship the finished product was by air cargo at a cost that was prohibitive. Add to that the need to redesign or retrofit buildings to accommodate the immense size of the doorways and other openings needed, just to get the data mini-centers inside, we no longer had a viable product. In layperson’s terms, we’d fucked up.
Shaving as little as a foot from the diameter would allow for conventional, wide-body surface transport and installation through a commercially available wide doorway, cutting shipping and installation costs by more than three quarters. However, if we could cut the diameter in half, we could use standard shipping containers, cutting the shipping and installation costs by yet another order of magnitude. The reduced footprint would also allow for installation in a vastly greater range of places. The decision to compromise on a two-meter, 8k server-data mini-center design was obvious, but doing so without introducing substantial delays would be an enormous challenge.
Although the circumference would be cut in half, we’d only have a quarter of the amount of space inside. However, there would be only a quarter as much space to cool, so the cooling system would be more efficient. We’d doubled the number of servers by dropping the segmental design, so we could still accommodate 8192 servers in a quarter of the originally planned space, but would there be enough room inside for the robotic arms and the cooling system?
Shaun’s surprisingly simple idea of alternating circuit-board orientations allowed adjacent boards to share their connections to the backplane, providing for a much closer spacing of the boards.
Unfortunately, there was no getting around that the central core needed to be shrunk from three meters to only one. However, by angling the circuit boards a mere three degrees from true vertical, the brackets to hold them in place could be interleaved, reducing the space between rows of servers by 2 cm. That shaved a total of 30 cm from the overall height of the cabinet, which gave us an extra foot of room under or on top of the cabinets for the cooling system.
Priscilla took the unusual step of building an unplanned additional quarter-scale model, but it was absolutely necessary before we could proceed. Now that I had my own wheels, I participated in helping her group build the new model. We burned a lot of midnight oil to get it done in record time. Hence, we were ready to begin fabrication of the full-size prototype simultaneously with the beginning of fall. The outer cylindrical structure was being manufactured in China from stainless steel. It was what was referred to as a Dewar vessel, but better known by the trade name, Thermos, having inner and outer walls separated by vacuum. The degree of thermal isolation from the outside world was nearly complete. The factory where the vessel was made was located in a Chinese city I’d never heard of before called Wuhan. It was one of the oldest and biggest cities in the world, with some nineteen million people in the metro area. If the prototype worked out, they could supply as many vessels as were needed at by far the lowest cost of any supplier that submitted a bid, even with the new tariffs. We just had to keep our fingers crossed that President Trump didn’t impose additional tariffs.
The CPUs that served as the brains of the servers were custom-designed ARM processors, updated from Applazon’s current designs to include additional cores and to be compatible with cold-temperature operation with sub-volt switching. They were being manufactured by Phillips, a large Dutch electronics conglomerate. The SSD chips were based on an off-the-shelf design from Samsung but modified for operation at low temperatures with sub-volt switching. Along with the Ethernet chips and switches, they were being manufactured in South Korea. The circuit boards were being manufactured and assembled by Foxconn, the same Taiwanese company that manufactured most of the products designed in our Cupertino facilities, including our personal computers, laptops and smartphones. However, because of potential export restrictions, Foxconn was manufacturing them in Taiwan rather than on mainland China. The refrigeration components were being manufactured in Canada. The frame into which the electronics fit was manufactured locally. A makeshift clean room had been set up for assembly.
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“This is beautiful!” I exclaimed.
“It’s one of the nicest trails in Omaha, and it’s pretty easy for a novice,” Shaun agreed with a grin. We were hiking the Zorinsky Lake trail, planning to hike the full loop, a hike of 7.8 miles, but because it was flat and paved, it was estimated to take only a bit under 3½ hours. After weeks of spending nearly all my time at work, I was finally spending a relaxing weekend with my boyfriend, although there was nothing relaxing about last night. We’d intended to watch a movie but ended up making love, practically all night. We never did eat dinner, but then we managed to polish off two full jars of peanut butter. Sleeping late Saturday morning, we decided to go for a hike on the Zorinsky trail. According to Shaun, it was known for its fall foliage.
Rather than eat a late breakfast, Shaun suggested stopping at one of the restaurants near the trail. Edward Zorinsky Recreation Area was surrounded by some of the most expensive housing in Omaha, and along the Highway 275 corridor were a number of strip malls offering a lot of places to eat. Because we got a late start, we ended up eating at both the beginning and end of the hike. We considered starting out at La Peep, a higher-end breakfast-and-brunch chain restaurant, but that would have meant hiking on overfull stomachs, so we parked by the Walmart Supercenter and had burgers at Freddy’s. It was a crisp October day with beautiful fall foliage. What I hadn’t expected was the lavishness of some of the mansions that lined the path. To be fair, some of the houses were similar in size to the McMansion Shaun and his dad were renting in Elkhorn, but some were three- and four-story monstrosities with huge verandas and enormous swimming pools, yet for all their opulence, they lacked any degree of privacy and could expect to have thousands of people stroll by on the lake trail. It was interesting to see how Omaha’s more affluent citizens lived, much as when we went to the zoo to see how all the animals lived.
After Shaun and I had hiked almost the entire trail, we took a look at our options for dinner nearby. It was early on a Saturday night, so we didn’t expect to face too long of a wait no matter where we went. As we reviewed our options on our phones, I happened to mention I’d never had Indian food, and so it was decided. We ate at Hyderabadi Biryani House, an Indian chain restaurant. By now I’d eaten in a number of ethnic restaurants, including Mexican, Mediterranean, Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants, and of course I’d grown up eating Italian food, particularly pizza. My previous experiences in no way prepared me for the bouquet of flavors I experienced at dinner. Afterwards, we took a leisurely stroll along the rest of the lake trail and headed back to my car for the drive home.
We were shocked when we arrived at Shaun’s house to find Frank’s car parked inside the garage. “Hey, Dad,” Shaun announced as we walked in the door. “We thought you were gonna be spending the entire weekend with Lauren.”
“So’d I,” Frank responded. “Sorry to spoil your weekend, but there was a bit of a mishap; her grandson managed to break his arm.”
“Ouch!” I responded. “He’s only four?” I asked.
“Yup, and he just started preschool,” Shaun confirmed.
“It’s a rather nasty break,” Frank went on. “It’s in the humerus; that’s the large arm bone,”
“The humerus makes for a bad break,” I responded. “Usually, kids fracture the two forearm bones, the radius and the ulna. Breaking the humerus takes a pretty serious fall. Do you know if it was his dominant or non-dominant arm?” I asked.
“It was his right arm, and he’s right-handed,” Frank replied, “and it was near the elbow.”
“Oh, that could be a problem,” I responded.
“How the hell do you know that?” Shaun asked.
“Because if the fracture’s through the growth plate, he could end up with his right arm growing only half as much as the left. Most fractures in kids can be managed with a cast. In an adult, they use surgery with a rod or screws and a plate. He’ll probably need to be in an external fixator for up to six months. He needs to see a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. There are probably only one or two in Omaha at most.”
“Not even,” Frank explained. “I offered to help, but I’d only be in the way. The closest specialist is in Kansas City, but Julie already has a life in Denver. Her grandson’s been stabilized with a cast, but he needs to have definitive treatment within days. They’re heading back to Denver tomorrow morning. Lauren’s heading back with them to help them get settled. She won’t be back for at least a week or two.”
“Well, that sucks,” Shaun responded. “How the fuck did you know all that, J.J.?”
“When I read something, I never forget it,” I replied.
“You mean like a photographic memory?” my boyfriend asked.
“Hardly,” I replied. “If I had that, I could quote the source verbatim. My brain doesn’t work like that. Some people with a photographic memory can recite Shakespeare and yet have no idea what it means. I can tell you what happened in nearly any of his plays and yet not remember a single line of verse.”
“That’s what makes you a genius, J.J.,” Frank exclaimed. “You have an uncanny ability to digest complex ideas instantly and to sort through them and recall just what’s relevant.”
“I guess,” I replied.
“There’s nothing to guess,” Frank countered and then asked, “Have you given thought to what you’re going to do now that your work on the new server design is nearly complete?”
“There’s still a lot to be done in building the prototype,” I reasoned, “and once the prototype has been tested, the installation of multiple data mini-servers will take months,” I replied. “I’d still like to help rewrite the server software and the control-room software. That’s a task I began some time ago, but never finished.”
“Not that I don’t think you could be helpful in either regard, J.J.,” Frank began, “but the testing and installation of the data center will proceed just fine with or without you. Nothing short of a war, a pandemic or a natural disaster will interfere with that. And as you can see, we’ve hired some of the best software engineers on the planet. You’re far more useful to Applazon as a thinker than a doer, and for that you need to finish your credentials. Applazon will pay you regardless, so take time away from the project and finish up your coursework.
“Once that’s done and you have your bachelor’s degree, you can submit your Ph.D. thesis proposal and put together your committee. You’ve already completed your qualifying exam and by completing the additional math components, you have all the course credit you need. You can submit your automated-data-center design and the test results from the prototype to satisfy the requirements for your dissertation.”
“You can do that?” I asked in surprise. “Isn’t the design proprietary?”
“Of course, you can do that, J.J.,” Frank replied. “It’s done by industry scientists and engineers all the time. Your final dissertation will have to be run by our lawyers to be sure you don’t give away the farm, but generally you’ll be free to submit anything for which we’ve submitted patent applications. A team of patent attorneys is working on that end of things as we speak. We hope to have all the applications done by the end of the year.” It was a revelation.
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“Good evening, sir, what can I do for you?” the young man at the desk asked.
“You have a reservation under Jeffries,” I replied.
“Yes, indeed,” the young man replied as he looked at his computer. “The reservation’s been prepaid, and we have a credit card on file for incidentals. Did you wish to use that credit card, or do you wish to change it at this time?”
“The credit card on file will be fine,” I replied. We were spending the weekend in New York in celebration of Shaun’s sixteenth birthday just two days before. He was now sixteen, and as my gift to him, we were celebrating it in style. I’d set a budget for the trip of $2500, which was a hell of a lot to spend on a birthday present for a teenager, but I loved Shaun with all my heart and wanted to spend my life with him. It was as much a present for me, too, as I’d yet to use any of my paid time off for an actual vacation.
Initially, I’d tried to make the reservation myself online, but that required clicking on an attestation that I was at least eighteen, which wouldn’t have been true. Therefore, I had Jerry make the reservation but still paid in advance with my own credit card. Tempted as I was to spend a thousand a night to stay at The Plaza Hotel, even though I had the money, I wasn’t rich, and I might need it someday. Through Trip Advisor I found a special deal on a room at The Time New York, an older 5-star hotel near Times Square that had been thoroughly updated and was highly rated. Even at $195 per night plus the tax, which wasn’t trivial, I was paying a significant portion of my savings for this mini vacation with my boyfriend. I was able to get a discounted airfare of only $127 each on Delta, but the limo from LaGuardia to the hotel was over fifty dollars. The theater tickets alone for two Broadway musicals were costing me over $500 each.
The young man at the desk handed me a small folder with a tiny key and a couple of plastic cards inside, and said, “There are two keycards and a bar key inside. Keep in mind that you must be twenty-one to use anything alcoholic from the bar. The prices for snack items and soft drinks are listed inside the directory in your room. Your room-key cards will also let you into the health club, with 24-hour access to all of the facilities. One-on-one sessions with a trainer or masseuse are available by reservation for a fee. The room-service menu and hours are posted in your room. Would you like someone to help you to your room?
I had to admit that the bellhop, who looked to be about our age, was very cute, but I had better ways to spend ten bucks. We both had brought only carry-on luggage, so I replied, “I think we can find it ourselves.” Taking the elevator and searching for the number printed on the cardboard folder in which the keycards were provided, we found the room quickly. I’d never used a keycard before, but had no difficulty figuring out how to use it. The room inside was pretty much what I’d expected. There was a king-size bed with a plush comforter and enough pillows to support an army of heads. The windows were small, as was to be expected for an older hotel, and the view was only of the building across the way.
There was a desk and there was a dresser with a TV that was shockingly small for the size of the room. I doubted it was even 42-inches. On the desk was a folder of travel magazines, delivery menus and information. A binder contained both the bar price list and the room-service menu. I noticed that a can of pop cost eight dollars and that a small personal Margherita pizza from room service was $22 plus an 18% gratuity. For less, I could order a large barbecue Hawaiian chicken pizza delivered from Papa John’s. It was late and I was hungry, so that was definitely a consideration. “You wanna go out and look around?” I asked, “Or we could order a pizza, make love and get an earlier start in the morning.”
“Hey, this is the city that never sleeps,” my boyfriend replied, “so why sleep? Back home most everything’s already shut down by now, even on a Friday night, but this is New York, man. Everything’s open and things are just getting started!”
“Okay, where do you wanna start?” I asked. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starved!”
“Well, let’s just head down Broadway to Times Square and see what we can find,” Shaun suggested.
“Do you think we should change our clothes?” I asked. It was mid-October, and the nighttime temperature was in the low sixties. It had been in the upper seventies when we boarded the plane back in Omaha, so we were both dressed only in t-shirts, shorts and sneakers.
“It might be a bit chilly,” I suggested. “It’s 65 now and feels like 62, so maybe a sweatshirt or a corduroy shirt over that?”
“A sweatshirt, even without the T, would be too warm I think,” Shaun replied. Then pulling out a rainbow-striped corduroy shirt and putting it on over the black t-shirt and shorts he was wearing, he asked, “How’s this?” leaving it unbuttoned.
With the passing of summer, Shaun’s hair had indeed lost it’s blond highlights and the dark brown color was nearly black. The contrast of the vivid colors of the shirt with his ebony hair and black clothes was stunning, so I replied, “It looks fantastic. Just don’t let any hot boys pick you up.”
“There’s only one boy I’m interested in,” he replied as he gave me a kiss on the lips.
Kissing him back, I got out a purple corduroy shirt and put it on over a white t-shirt and tan shorts. “Good?” I asked.
“Phenomenal,” he responded. To a lot of people, shorts might seem inappropriate for sixty degrees, but to us the weather was positively balmy.
Making sure I had my wallet and keycard, I grabbed my boyfriend’s hand, and we went out into the night. Even as late as it was, the hotel restaurant was open, but it was much more upscale than we had in mind. The same pizza that was on the room service menu was $20 in the restaurant, and all of the meals were a la carte, with entrées running around $30. To the left of the hotel exit was a huge marquee for The Book of Mormon, which we’d be seeing Sunday afternoon, although Shaun didn’t know that yet. Turning right toward Broadway, I immediately spotted M&M’s World on the next block.
“Oh, my god, look!” I exclaimed with the delight of the child I still was. Giant video screens showed M&Ms of every color and variety cascading down like a waterfall, and there were the M&M characters on the screens and in the windows of the store. I started to pull my boyfriend in that direction, but he held me back.
Shouting over the din of the street noise so I could hear him, he said, “We can stop here tomorrow, but it’s already closed.” Then pointing back uptown, he said, “Look, there’s Junior’s! Their cheesecake is supposed to be the best in the world, and they’re supposed to have great food, too.”
“Oh, that sounds good,” I replied. “Let’s check it out!”
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.