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Apple's Reno iCloud data center taps AT&T's latest DWDM tech

Apple's $1 billion iCloud data center near Reno, Nevada taps into the latest technology in data signaling to bring high speed Internet services from the desert to users. Here's what's involved in the mega "information superhighway" project.

Previous segments in this series have looked at Apple's commitment to building the world's greenest data centers, the company's jump start in construction at its Reno data center site, the massive scope of site preparation, and the sophisticated water technology being installed. Here'e we'll look at the futuristic conduits that deliver iCloud's digital packets at the speed of light, as well as their historic predecessors.

Apple Reno iCloud data lines

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something rainbow

What do you do with affordable land, blessed with abundant natural resources and located at a strategic point between America's major cities?

Historically, you build transportation links and set up infrastructure to deliver goods and services across vast distances. And today, Apple is partnering with leading data providers, including AT&T, to do just that with its massive iCloud construction project, except instead of roads, the company will use data links to shuffle data between Silicon Valley and New York City (and, of course, to the rest of the Internet) at light speed.

AT&T's data building (above) opposite Apple's vast construction site (visible in the background) gives the appearance of being just a simple, single room Old West prairie schoolhouse. The only feature that's really historic, however, is its olde fashioned white outhouse (standing in the foreground).

The brick structure with its massive exhaust chimney actually holds high tech equipment pioneering some of the world's most advanced signaling technologies now in production: Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) for long range fiber optic data links offering blazing speeds that replace Coarse Wavelength Division Multiplexing's 40 Gigabit links with conduits that can support 100 Gigabit transfers.

While simple fiber optic systems (such as the Toslink digital audio cables Apple supports on its MacBooks and Apple TV) use a single wavelength LED to essentially shine a flashing light down a glass tube, more sophisticated systems use higher powered lasers, and break up the light spectrum into a rainbow of colors ("wavelength division"), each of which is used to send part of the signal.

"Multiplexing" packs this rainbow of signals into a single optical cable for transmission, and the "dense" designation means that more wavelengths and channels are packed into tighter bundles (compared to "coarse," of course). The actual "color" frequencies that work best to deliver data over fiber optic are actually infrared rather than those visible to the human eye.

Densely packed optical data requires highly sophisticated, temperature controlled lasers tuned to generate precise wavelengths of light, as well as expensive new transponders and repeater equipment to support the advanced technologies required to effectively amplify different parts of the spectrum for long distance transmission.

Without the massive investments made to figure out how to perform this sort of optical magic, fiber links would be restricted to short runs within cities, rather than being able to send huge streams of data long distances, linking users together with a centralized service like iCloud.

Three centuries, three high speed networks

The site of Apple's newest data center, located within the Reno Technology Park now under development by Unique Infrastructure Group, follows in the footsteps of three landmark transport paths built across America over the past three centuries.

The first was the Transcontinental Railroad, initiated from Sacramento, California to the Missouri River in Iowa during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Funded by the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and completed in 1869, it opened up the Western U.S. to development and still serves as a critically important mode of shipment.

The second was the Interstate Highway System built under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, funded by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Interstate 80, which runs from San Francisco to New York City (and past Apple's Reno data center site) was completed in 1986, resulting in the first and longest continuous freeway to stretch across the nation, 120 years after the First Transcontinental Railroad.

The third are the data conduits that support the Internet, funded by former Vice President Al Gore's High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991. Gore's promotion of an "Information Superhighway" became a key platform issue in President Bill Clinton's successful first campaign.

Apple Reno iCloud data lines

Data lines stretching east toward Salt Lake City, Utah

The rapid expansion of the Internet in the 1990s helped fuel the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history. It also eventually contributed the "i" to a series of Apple products that has over the past 15 years vaulted the company into being the world's most valuable and productive firm in the world: iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad and now iCloud.

Apple's latest iCloud data center happens to be situated at a point where America's railroads, highways and data conduits have made important initial connections across the nation. That's not a coincidence, as each new form of transport was built along the previous one. But only due to recent developments does it now make sense to build massive data centers far from the population centers they serve. In fact, it not only makes sense but is both economically critical to job creation and important for the environment.