"They are ugly, they require a small city's worth of electricity, but that's where the Web happens". Indeed. In a previous post I wrote about Google's new data center in Oregon, including a picture of the two football-field-sized buildings hosting hundreds of thousands of computers. Now Fortune magazine publishes a story on server farms, and it's worth reading it: it will change the way you look at your e-mail or you think about the web page that's displaying on your screen or the video you're downloading or the MMOG your daughter is playing. Because those bits and bytes don't float off into the ether from nowhere to nowhere: the (supposedly immaterial) information economy is being "built on an infrastructure as imposing as the factories and mills" of the past. This is a "dirty, noisy, capital-intensive" industry, writes the journalist. She quotes Urs Hölzle, a Swiss who's a senior vice-president of operations at Google: "When you go to certain parts of a data center, it looks much more like a factory than something high-tech".
Data centers are huge buildings full of computers, with tight security, huge cooling systems (computers heat up a lot) and their own electrical substations (proximity to cheap electrical power is actually a key variable in choosing their location - that's the kind of consideration that also determined the site of mills and smelters in another era...) supplemented by rows of diesel generators for continuity. They "look like a weird mash-up of high tech and heavy industry, wrapped in the architectural charm of a maximum-security prison". And we will see more of them: according to the story, server farms can't multiply fast enough to keep up with the growth of the Internet.