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Is Apple Shooting for the Cloud?

More information is trickling out about Apple's new data center in North Carolina—it seems it's going to be big. Amongst the biggest in the World, in fact. Are the folks at Cupertino shooting Apple into the cloud computing future?

Apple cloud computing

Over at CultofMac, there's a fascinating post of an interview with Rich Miller—he's the editor of online trade magazine Data Center Knowledge, so he's about as much an expert as you can get on the matter. The post is detailed, but we've broken down the core arguments into a list for you:

  1. Apple's existing Newark, CA., Data Center is around 109,000 square feet—the new one is over 500,000. That represents either a ridiculously big scaling-up of business or a whole new thing
  2. 500,000 square feet is among the largest centers being built in the World on a single site. Microsoft's new one in Chicago is around 400,000, in comparison
  3. "The companies that are building the biggest data centers tend to also have the biggest cloud ambitions"
  4. The choice of site location depends on cheap electricity and/or fast broadband pipes to the World. Rural North Carolina was chosen probably more for tax breaks and low-cost running rather than fast connectivity

In other words, Miller is pretty certain that Apple's intentions are to launch a massive-scale cloud computing initiative. Essentially this is since it's not building multiple data centers near good broadband pipes—unlike, for example, some of Facebook's Virginia-based sites which offer fast transatlantic connections, vital for its real-time status.

Apple, for its part, has said the facility is merely it's East coast data hub—keeping the facts close to its chest as it always does. In this regard the company's treatment of its new data center smacks of Google's data center habits. It's possibly even more secretive than Steve Job's outfit, though we know much of the computing gear that is built in the centers is hand-crafted to Google's own specs so it's optimized for company operations. Microsoft, on the other hand, is surprisingly open about its data center habits, even going so far as to show off its recent off-the-shelf shipping container-based designs for their low cost.

Given Apple's secrecy then, what could the new facility be for? Is it for the digital album "cocktail" plans? Unlikely, since the data burden of that wouldn't be five times bigger than the existing one. Is it for an expansion of iTunes into streaming video around the World? Again, unlikely given the key to making this work is bandwidth. The answer is that it most likely is for a cloud-based version of its iLife and iWork applications, following on from the precedent that its MobileMe online user hub has set. It's a logical move, given that Google's moved into this space and Microsoft is following suit with its Office 2010 plans, and that cloud computing offers significant advantages for the user on the move. And of course the iPhone is in millions of people's pockets already.

But though a cloud-computing network for basic productivity software on the iPhone would be welcomed by some, it's not the ideal platform for it, thanks to its small screen. Hence you could draw one final conclusion, and take this as yet another hint that Apple's fabled iTablet is on the way. It kind of makes sense—the iTablet's probably not going to have the same raw computing power and local storage as a fully-fledged MacBook, so a cloud-based solution for iPhoto, Numbers and the like (and maybe even your iTunes library?) would make excellent sense. It's just a thought, of course.

[via CultOfMac, NYTimes]