The Experience Design of Server Farms
The modern data centre is rows and rows of humming computer cabinets locked behind layers of security. It doesn’t have to be.
Brewster Kahle put his data centre in a church.
Why not? The Internet Archive needed a home, and the old Christian Science building at 300 Funston Avenue in San Francisco — with its beautiful white columns — looked a lot like the organization’s logo.
Anyone can visit the archive. Head into the building during business hours, take a hard right and climb the stairs. You’ll find yourself standing in a beautiful sanctuary. Ahead, the pews are still in place, facing the stage. Behind, looms the primary copy of the Internet Archive — three stacks of black servers nestled in an alcove and covered in blinking LEDs, as if the 2001 Monolith had unfolded and come to life.
I’m visiting the archive with a group of architecture students on a week-long tour of the physical Internet. Led by architect Liam Young, the students are trying to understand the needs that lead to the design of the ballooning volume of buildings and spaces given over to the machines that make up the Internet. Together, we’ve embarked on a road trip up the American West Coast.
The Internet Archive’s sanctuary server room is surprisingly quiet. This wasn’t easy to arrange. Servers need fans to cool them and churches traditionally reflect and amplify sound to make the organ and singing louder. Fans plus echo chamber equals cacophony. So when the Internet Archive moved the servers into the nave, they had to install special sound-proofing on the walls to absorb and dampen the whirr. The result is that humans and machines can comfortably coexist in the space. Attend an afternoon lecture at the Internet Archive and you’ll sit in sun-drenched pews while, behind you, little blue lights flash on and off to indicate the virtual presence of millions of visitors to archive.org.
The decision to put the servers on display is an aesthetic one, clearly. But there’s a security aspect as well. In the short term, the servers are at risk of having some idiot walk up and damage them. So far, no one has and Kahle isn’t too worried about that. He’s more concerned about the long term. He’s thinking in decades and centuries.
“What happens to libraries is that they’re burned,” says Kahle, “and they’re typically burned by governments.”
He knows the Internet Archive is unlikely to be literally set to torch by American agents, but as the place dances on the edges of copyright law, the possibility that it’ll be shut down by a stroke of judicial pen looms large. No amount of physical security will protect you from the force of the law. Instead, Kahle chooses social protection. He wants to the Internet Archive to be beloved. He wants closing it down to be politically expensive. So the virtual library is in a physical gathering place — they’re talking about opening up a café. The Internet Archive will be among the people and, with their support, the inevitable shuttering of the American branch will be forestalled a little while longer.
Downtown, the data centres are different. Unlike Kahle’s open approach, companies serving commercial customers toe a line between selling themselves and keeping things secret. NDAs prevent me from describing their interiors in detail, but walk into just about any lobby of the colocation sites that serve San Francisco’s startups and — depending on when they were last remodelled — you’ll find bright clean lines, glass walls, and plenty of security.
They are very much not open to the public. Secrecy is a big part of their security plan. A system of badges, automated locks, human patrols, cameras, cages, and — in some cases — biometric scanners monitor and control access. Everywhere, signs tell you not to take pictures. Not that it would matter. They all look the same. You’ve already seen hundreds of photos of what it looks like in there. The layout of the main server rooms — all rows and rows of server cabinets locked behind cages — are largely dictated by economics. Downtown real estate isn’t cheap, and the companies running the facility need to pack in the right density of billable power-sucking server blades to stay profitable.
The personalization happens in the lobbies. They’re the centre’s interface with the world and part of the sales experience. Prospective clients come through the front doors and first impressions matter. The lobbies could look like anything, so they’re styled and branded to appeal to the people with money passing through. They look like the lobbies of the startups.
The students tell me about a site they visited in New Jersey, one of the new buildings purpose-built to be a server facility. They describe a space all done up in glowing blue LED strips — a geek’s science fiction idea of what a computer facility should look like. They tell me about the tour guide enthusiastically telling them how many layers of security they’d passed through to even reach the front gate, and how the building was protected against someone driving up with a bomb in the back of a van.
Some facilities employ armed guards. Apparently these are popular with gaming companies.
Not that this matters, either. When pressed, your guides will admit that even completely wiping out any particular server farm would barely register as a blip in a well-run company’s operations. All the big companies have plenty of redundancy spread across the country or the globe. They don’t think in terms of individual servers, but in terms of capacity. When it comes to caring for the more remote facilities, engineers might wait for dozens or even hundreds of hardware failures before bothering to come out and do something about it. Until then, they just shift the load somewhere else.
The real threats — hacker break-ins, malware, DDOS — come from the virtual side of things, and data centre management firms don’t deal with that. That’s a software problem. The visible physical security serves as a sort of performance, a symbol of the company’s centralized concern for the hardware prospective clients will place under their care.
Standing among the Internet Archive’s pews, Kahle talks about trust. He points out the extreme implicit trust that users of social media and other cloud services put in the companies that serve us when we entrust them with our information. He contrasts that with the militarized facilities where our data is stored. That approach is a dark ethos, he says, and it reflects a dangerous attitude about knowledge. It’s the same attitude that leads to DRM schemes, proprietary networks, and a weakened open Internet.
“There used to be a computer company called Control Data,” he says. “How obvious can you be? That’s sort of what those guys are. Hopefully, we can see this stuff be dispersed.”
Kahle envisions a future where we live amongst our information. He wants to see distributed local ownership of data embedded in the landscapes and architecture all around us.
“How we act in a church and what a church does for us in a community is a better model,” Kahle says. He wants a place where people can visit the Internet and he thinks that the server in a sanctuary is just a start. He says they’re struggling with what a library can be in the 21st century.
He entreats the students to help. He describes the experience of moving from the street to the foyer, and then ascending from the foyer to the sanctuary as a kind of ‘aha’ moment. “What’s the ‘aha’ moment of coming to a physical place that engenders the Internet?” he asks. “I would say it’s about the people that are in it, rather than aisles and aisles of ugly machines that are too loud and behind retina scanners.”
“Please think it through. We don’t know what to do.”
Note: As we were preparing to post, the Internet Archive announced that they’d experienced a fire in their scanning centre. The main building and servers are safe, and there are backup copies of the archive off-site at any rate.
An early estimate shows we may have lost about $600,000 worth of high end digitization equipment, and we will need to repair or rebuild the scanning building. It is in difficult times like these that we turn to our community.
We’ve reached out to Kahle and will update here, if he’s able to respond.
cc photo by Tom Raftery