Wait, So The Web’s Down For Everyone Or Just Me?

by Amy Marie Slocum

Finding the Location of the Internet; an FAQ
On June 29, 2012 a massive electrical storm swept through Northern Virginia, causing power outages around the D.C. area. The storm rendered useless one particular data center which housed part of Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud, a network of data centers that host websites—that happened to contain information essential to the operations of Netflix, Instagram, and Pinterest. This outage meant that if you lived in Norway, you had to put your smørbrød recipe pinning on hold; in Los Angeles, Kim Kardashian’s belfie had to wait; if you wanted to watch the newest episode of Scandal from your penthouse in Beijing—for an hour or two—you were likely out of luck.

What we talk about when we talk about where the Internet exists typically rests in the existential conundrum—like a sophomore philosophy major yearning for an answer to the location of the soul. But if we look at that frequently asked question directly, if we take it to mean the residence of the information space, the answer is: data centers—containing many individual servers—scattered throughout the world. In effect, this information space is, indeed, born and bred everywhere—and expanding.

What do data centers look like?

Like houses for hard drives.

What does that look like?

Like racks of servers in rows inside a big room.

Where are data centers?

At last count, 1,625 reside in the U.S., 123 in Canada, 29 in Central America, 58 in South America (31 of which are in Brazil), 87 in the Scandinavian Countries, 225 in the UK, 39 in Russia, 997 in Western Europe, 38 in Africa, 83 in the Middle East, 101 in India, and 302 in Asia (North Korea has zero).

What are the amenities?

The servers need to be cooled at all times, so sometimes they use standard air-conditioning, sometimes they are laced together by tubes of water that absorb the heat and cool at a central point before going back out, and sometimes they are immersed in pools of oil or water.1 The servers need a steady source of energy (data centers use 100 times the energy of a typical office building), and they need to be secure.

Secure against what?

Hackers mainly, and the threat of—steadily more frequent—natural disasters.2

What are other threats against data centers?

Depends, do you have something to hide? The U.S. Government has access to all data inside the U.S. and as of recently, data belonging to U.S. citizens that physically resides overseas.3

Where is some of the most innovative data center technology coming from?

The Node Pole, an area in Northern Sweden close to the Arctic Circle. The area is ideal for its cool climate, secure infrastructure, and green energy—and counts Facebook as one of its new tenants. The project is being called the Rapid Deployment Data Center (RDDC), a fusion of the basic concepts utilized by Ford Motor Company and IKEA.4

What do Ford and IKEA have to do with data centers?

Facebook recently held a conference exploring innovative ways to design data centers that are secure and easy to implement. They ended up with a fusion of the assembly line process Ford employs in their production, combined with the flat-pack technology utilized by IKEA.

Why does data center architecture matter?

Industrial architecture has had a large influence on the whole of design since the Industrial Revolution: The design of the AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin (built in 1908 and 1909) is still being taught to architecture students today. The factory represented a departure from the ornate structures of the 19th Century and put function before design. The architect, Peter Behrens—one of the founders of the Deutscher Werkbund movement—was influenced by the clean lines and simple materials of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England.

How will data center design affect the architecture of the future?

Industrial design charted the course for prefab homes and IKEA furniture. If quality keeps declining at the current rate we will likely be living in corrugated cardboard houses by 2035, fumbling together furniture that has to be disposed of after a single use.5

1 The structures vary. Microsoft’s data centers are housed mostly outside in futuristic shipping containers.
2 Pionen is located in a nuclear bunker from the Cold War. The entrance is protected by a 40-centimeter thick steel door, and the plant itself has been blasted into the bedrock below the White Mountains in Södermalm in Stockholm, Sweden.
3 The U.S. Government issued a unilateral search warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for emails being stored in databases in Ireland. Microsoft refused, but the ruling was recently supported by a New York District Court. Microsoft’s position is currently supported by leading tech companies and news organizations. Brad Smith, General Counsel and Executive Vice President, Legal and Corporate Affairs to Microsoft wrote recently in a company blog post, “We believe that when one government wants to obtain email that is stored in another country, it needs to do so in a manner that respects existing domestic and international laws.”
4 In addition to being home to IKEA and the data centers of the future, all of the particleboard used in IKEA furniture comes from one small town in Sweden called Hultsfred. From the Hultsfred Wikipedia page: “It is best known for the Hultsfred Festival.”
5 But of course, this depends on current trends remaining the same, as we know they rarely do.