The Urban, Infrastructural Geography Of ‘The Cloud’

Looking at where data moves, where it *lives*


Data takes up space. The space it takes up — and the water, land and electricity that get used in taking it up — remains, for the most part, out of sight, out of mind and utterly uninteresting to actually look at.
-Ingrid Burrington, The Cloud is not the Territory

The relationship between data to space extends beyond the network equipment, services, and mobile devices that transmit and present information to a user. Pervasive wireless connectivity and ubiquitous computing, as ‘the cloud’ are central, common elements of contemporary urban life. Data centers translate, as it were, between individuals and their experience of the city by mediating experiences through digital augmentation. An example of this is Google Maps’ locative ability to place the user on the map and then orient said user to wherever they need to go.

While data is largely immaterial except in the action it enables, like getting you to your meeting with that map, the storage, maintenance, and transmission of data require many layers of interfacing telecommunication infrastructure that function nearly everywhere but are always, inherently embedded in particular places.

The little, vertical white rectangles on the topmost, towering part of the boarded-up warehouse are cellular antennas, connecting a passing cellphone or smartphone to ‘the cloud’. The pervasive connectivity that locative media like Google Maps rely on is produced through network equipment like this, bolted onto otherwise unused, tall buildings in the de-industrialized urban landscape. North Philadelphia, October 2010.

In daily life, we typically experience ‘the cloud’ as the latent potential of data and digitized information in general to do things for us: to tell us information such as the weather today or when a bus will arrive, how to navigate between new places, or as a a quick glance at a document stored between multiple devices before a meeting. While we experience this data through a screen, whether smartphone or a larger-screened tablet/laptop/desktop, ‘the cloud’ as this electromagnetic, immaterial but impactful thing resides in specific places.

The creation, maintenance, and transmission of data to and between users necessitates an immense, world-spanning telecommunications infrastructure that, as Ingrid Burrington’s recent writing for The Atlantic has explored in wonderful detail. ‘The cloud’ is extremely physical and not at all ephemeral nor ‘cloudlike’. For ‘the cloud’ to function requires a distributed, interconnected system of servers, fiber-optic cables, and network equipment such as cellular antenna sites, wi-fi routers, and so on that form an digital, infrastructural geography of data, a geography of ‘the cloud’. Even though this geography is out of sight and relatively uninteresting to look at (especially compared to the bits and bytes of email, social media posts, and cat videos contained within the digital infrastructure), it is a tangible antithesis of cloud-based metaphors.

Buried fiber-optic cable markers alongside CSX railroad tracks in central Philadelphia. February 2010.

The data centers that house the websites and other ‘cloud’ information we access daily are layered in the urban landscape even though the digitized utility of these spaces is not readily apparent. There is no symbology to data centers: no wi-fi symbol equivalent, for instance, to indicate what is housed within. While many of the data centers that encase ‘the cloud’, as the digitized, information-holding core of the Internet, are in out of the way places, in the suburbs or way past the suburbs, there are also many data centers within cities (www.datacentermap.com is a great source for learning more about where data centers are located).

“Even though this geography [of the cloud] is relatively uninteresting to look at, it is a tangible antithesis of cloud-based metaphors.”

Some data centers are in re-used, industrial-era structures that were built long before our contemporary, digital-era began. Urban or not, data centers are often located where they are due to proximity to railroads and the industrial city that relied on rail to move goods around. The railroad track is itself not consequential to ‘the cloud’, but the railroad track’s right of way is of consequence because that is where the fiber-optic cables are laid, cables that move ‘the cloud’ between a data center and the user.

Data centers connect individual users but are typically separated from their proximate neighborhood, embodying the juxtaposition between highly designed, connective objects in the form of smartphones and other cloud computing devices, and the quotidian landscapes we all inhabit. We have shifted our information storage, retrieval, and processing needs into digital devices, but the information still resides somewhere, and in many cases, that somewhere is, today, a data center.

60 Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan (March 2010)
60 Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan (above) and One Wilshire in downtown Los Angeles (July 2014), two of the most important nodes in ‘the cloud’, at least in North America.

The best-known data centers, that both also act as co-location points, are likely 60 Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan and One Wilshire in downtown Los Angeles, the former originally the global headquarters of Western Union and the latter originally an office building, now both are among the most important nodes in the global Internet. Most of the Internet traffic between North American and Europe passes through this building, as well as data going elsewhere.

Given New York City’s prominence for the global economy, there are a number of data centers in and surrounding the city, but all the major cities of the Northeast United States have these pieces of ‘the cloud’ nearby. Chances are good an email or a packet of digital information heading to Europe passes through this building.

AT&T buried fiber optic cables alongside the Amtrak Northeast Corridor train tracks in West Philadelphia (April 2011)

If you head south 100 miles from lower Manhattan into downtown Philadelphia, on an Amtrak Northeast Corridor train for instance, you will be running parallel to fiber optic cables buried in the gravel alongside the tracks. Once in Philadelphia you will find a number of urban data centers, including the Terminal Commerce Building.


Housing ‘The Cloud’

The eleven story, 1.3 million square foot Terminal Commerce Building sits just north of Philadelphia’s City Hall, across from the former offices of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia public school district’s main offices at 410 North Broad Street. This Art Deco building takes up an entire city block; it was completed in 1930 and originally contained wholesale furniture showrooms and warehousing for furniture.

The Terminal Commerce Building on the left, one of the largest data centers in the Northeast United States. The former offices of the Philadelphia Inquirer on the right, and City Hall in the center distance. Note the collection of backup power generators and cooling equipment poking up above the roof-line. A local real estate developer has proposed turning the currently-vacant Inquirer Building into a hotel, effectively moving the downtown’s commercial and foot-traffic many blocks north, and perhaps bringing some jobs back into the neighborhood. July 2014.

The Terminal Commerce Building has a railroad spur going into the basement to load and unload goods; this is where the fiber optic cables run into the data center, this otherwise unused railroad right of way cutting through downtown is what makes the building useful as a data center. According to a report submitted to place the building into the National Register of Historic Places, a status granted in 1996, the Terminal Commerce Building was “large enough to command its own post office, and later its own zip code, [and] by 1948 the building housed 175 companies employing some 5,000 people”. By the early 1970s this was the largest single office building in the city. Hidden City Philadelphia has a very detailed recent article about the building’s history here.

Since 1978, Sungard has occupied part of the building, offering offsite data storage and recovery in case of disaster (this information also comes from the above-mentioned report). Sungard is one of the larger global data storage and recovery firms, listed on the Fortune 500 and headquartered in suburban Philadelphia (Sungard was recently bought by FIS Global, a “financial services” company). While Sungard has remained in the building and today occupies 50% of the floorspace, the rest of the structure has slowly filled in with other data storage companies. By the late 1990s, it became a co-location point center where multiple carriers house their respective data centers in one building. Today there are approximately eighty networks in the building (to be clear, I’m not sure what constitutes a network in this citation taken from an article about the building’s new owner), which also acts as an interchange between data storage providers and telecommunications companies. Parts of ‘the cloud’ are both stored in this building directly, replacing couches and tables with servers and cables, moving bits of light instead of chairs and bed frames.

Whereas the building as a furniture showroom opened to the street with window displays and pedestrian traffic in and out, today the building presents frosted windows, closed metal doors, and a guarded entrance onto the main north-south thoroughfare through Philadelphia. The typical people seen outside are white male network engineers and technicians that maintain the computers, on a smoking break or walking to and from their cars. Data moves in and out, but a user of that data could not walk in off the street to ‘see’ their data without arranging to do so beforehand.

The back side of the Terminal Commerce Building, taken from the railroad spur’s right of way that the carry the fiber-optic cables into the building. The rail spur connects into the Reading Viaduct, an abandoned elevated railway that supporters are working to turn into a park similar to the High Line in Manhattan. April 2015.

The social and economic utility of ‘the cloud’, of data centers holding key elements of the information-knowledge economy and our networked society is tied into processes of de-industrialization and economic restructuring. By virtue of the repurposing of industrial-era buildings, ‘the cloud’ as a particularly urban matter stretches from the multitude of users of data whether in the Philadelphia region or literally anywhere else around the world. We do not have to know which data center our own particular data is held within to be connected to buildings like the Terminal Commerce Building. That is the nature of ’the cloud’: it is everywhere and nowhere, but also in specific places like this.

Additionally, this data center and co-location node represents the manifestation of the new, information and innovation economy, which is largely inseparable from digital forms of connection to data and to dispersed social networks. As the industrial-era usefulness of inner city Philadelphia was to centralize, in Terminal Commerce Building, the storage and selling of physical goods, in the information economy the location still matters but for different reasons, reasons that do not have the same sort of impact on the neighborhood. The shift to a data center mirrors the shift in employment opportunities out of North Philadelphia, away from industrial warehouses and manufacturing in what was once called The Workshop of the World, into a revitalized downtown business including successful medicine, education, and tourism fields, but these workers today have no need to physically come to the neighborhood surrounding the data center. Their laptops and smartphones may access data within the building, but that is the extent of it.

A small homeless camp alongside a buried fiber optic cable, underneath Walnut Street in central Philadelphia (April 2011).

Conclusion

The disposition of data to transform social exchange is predicated on pervasive connection to global telecommunication networks, where the ‘high design’ of digital, mobile technologies like an Apple iPhone function through mundane and distributed infrastructural landscapes. These in-between, typically out of sight spaces transfer information across distance while also affecting proximate space in consequential ways. ‘The cloud’ may be everywhere a cellular or wi-fi signal reaches, but it also inhabits real, particular places like the Terminal Commerce Building. While data is largely immaterial except in the action it enables, the storage, maintenance, and transmission of data requires many layers of interfacing systems that are always, inherently embedded in particular places. Understanding the impact of ‘the cloud’ on cities necessitates conceptualizing the relationship between digital infrastructures and the urban fabric.

Furthermore, data storage, maintenance, and transmission are themselves part of wider, longer-term patterns of economic restructuring and post-industrial, inner-city urban transformation. Data centers’ re-use of industrial-era structures ties the twenty-first century utility of ‘the cloud’ into nineteenth and twentieth century economic processes; buildings designed to hold heavy equipment or warehouse physical goods are useful for siting the heavy computer servers that hold ‘the cloud’, and inner city locations designed around proximity to a population of workers for manufacturing jobs are, today, often located close to central business districts and the needs of information-heavy, twenty-first century enterprise.

A Verizon truck outside the Terminal Commerce Building (April 2015).

‘The cloud’s’ functionality, and the personal, mobile devices through which this data is consumed are inseparable from this infrastructural back-end. Without constant connectivity to data centers, ‘the cloud’ is nothing. While the location of data centers does not inherently matter, only the connection, data still embodies particular spaces, forming an infrastructural geography layered within and between cities, co-produced through or alongside other infrastructures such as transportation — especially the railroad — even within city streets where that railroad has been absent for decades.


If you enjoyed this essay, check out plenty more writing about infrastructure and urbanization at my blog Everyday Structures. A follow-up essay about the energy demand of ‘the cloud’ can be found here.