Eels, Robots and Drug Busts: How Data Centers Got Weird In 2022
From data center operators growing their own eels and deploying robotic inspection teams, to drug busts and a particularly unsanitary security lapse, the past 12 months produced a wide range of unconventional and bizarre data center stories.
Below are some of the most head-turning data center headlines from the past year.
Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto: Human-Like Robots To Patrol Data Centers Across Japan
A Japanese data center operator is using humanoid robots to reduce the need for on-site employees at its data centers.
NTT Data announced last month it will soon begin using robots to perform inspections and monitor equipment at its 15 Japanese data centers. The Ugo Co. robots are designed to look vaguely human, with an upright torso, head, eyes and functional arms and hands, albeit all mounted on wheels.
The robots will perform various meter measurements and will check for abnormalities in how data center equipment is functioning, tasks it can perform unsupervised using artificial intelligence, according to NTT. Each automaton inspector comes equipped with a 4K camera, thermal camera, microphone and sensors to detect humidity, temperature and the presence of foreign substances in the air.
NTT’s leadership said its investment in developing these robots is intended to reduce the need for on-site human staffers at its facilities.
“As a result, it is possible to obtain effects such as reduction of work hours, work style reform by remote work, and visualization of expert know-how by digitization,” NTT Data said in a post on its website, according to Data Center Dynamics. “We aim to reduce inspection work time by up to 80 percent by automating the recording and reporting work that currently needs to be performed by the person in charge using AI.”
NTT Data isn’t the only data center operator turning to robots. NTT Communications, a separate operator under the same parent company as NTT Data, has also rolled out a data center robot to monitor product quality and perform cleaning tasks. Additionally, fellow Japanese operator Fujitsu began training a data center robot in November.
Data Centers Are Keeping People Warm — And Also Eels
Data center operators are finding innovative ways to reuse the significant heat generated by their facilities: from heating thousands of homes to farming thousands of eels.
Across Northern Europe, a number of data center operators are helping provide winter heat to nearby residents by connecting to what are known as “district heating projects" — plants run by local utilities that pump hot water through an underground network of pipes and into thousands of homes. By sending their heated wastewater directly into these plants, data centers are able to dramatically reduce the amount of energy the utility needs to use.
QTS Data Centers announced this month it is connecting its data center in the Dutch city of Groningen to the city’s new district heating project, contributing 2.5 megawatts worth of waste heat to a project that serves around 10,000 homes. Earlier this year, Stack Infrastructure and Apple both announced plans to connect to district heating systems in Norway and Denmark, respectively, while a Digital Realty data center in Austria began sending heat to a nearby hospital.
"Data centers located in urban areas are stable and good sources of excess heat for district heating, and together we can contribute to the reuse of emission-free heat,” Knut Inderhaug, managing director of Norwegian heating project Hafslund Oslo Celsio, said in a statement. “Projects like this are positive for us as energy providers, for our city and its inhabitants, and for the climate."
In Japan, one data center is using its waste heat to keep a different population warm: 300,000 eels. Located on Japan’s North Island of Hokkaido, the snow-cooled White Data Center has begun operating its own on-site eel farm, with the data center’s heat used to keep tanks at a cozy 80.6 degrees.
Other data centers are looking to follow suit, albeit not specifically with eels: Swedish operator EcoDataCenter announced plans to use its heated wastewater for local aquaculture, although no specific projects have been announced.
Data Center Intruder Came In Through 'Piss Corridor'
Security at one UK data center had a leak.
Data center operators routinely hire security professionals to conduct what are known as penetration tests. Simply put, so-called pen testers are paid to break into data centers and other buildings to test security systems and reveal vulnerabilities. Often, the details of these break-ins read like something out of a spy novel or heist film, complete with high-tech hacking techniques and old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger deception.
But one high-profile pen tester recently revealed that his successful entry into an unnamed data center was much less glamorous than anything you’d find in a James Bond film. On Twitter, pen tester Andrew Tierney revealed that breaking into one UK data center required crawling through what he called a "piss corridor” — a small space between the wet-wall behind the facility’s toilets and the building’s envelope. He says he was able to enter this tunnel from outside the building, and it led him into the heart of the facility.
“By studying the floor plans of the building, I could see what I ended up calling the 'piss corridor' running along the back of the toilets,” Tierney wrote on Twitter. “After gaining access to the insecure side, I entered the toilets. Via the accessible cubicle, there was a concealed door into the piss corridor. I opened it, walked along, minding my own business. After *really* making sure there wasn't someone else in the other accessible cubicle, I let myself out. And I'm in the toilets on the secure side, in the data center.”
While such a significant physical vulnerability should alarm any data center operator, Tierney suggests that the bigger concern is how he discovered this tunnel of “fragrant dripping liquids” in the first place — the floor plans for the data center were publicly available on the internet.
Looking For Drugs, Cops Find Illegal Data Center
Spanish police thought they were making a drug bust but found an illegal bitcoin mine instead.
In February, police in Seville thought the tenants of an industrial facility were stealing thousands of euros of public electricity to power lighting needed to grow marijuana. Yet their raid of the facility instead uncovered a makeshift data center illegally tapping into public power feeds to mine bitcoin. According to police, the facility contained 21 mining systems valued at around $56K.
While authorities estimated at the time that the equipment could have generated around $4K in cryptocurrency each month, there is a good chance these illicit earnings have all but evaporated. Bitcoin’s value has plummeted by more than 50% in the months since the raid, a collapse that has been devastating for crypto miners — legal or not.
“It’s certainly not what we were expecting,” Jennifer Griffin, Sandwell police sergeant, said in a statement, according to Data Center Dynamics. “It had all the hallmarks of a cannabis cultivation set-up."