Where Your Web Searches, Emails, and Videos Live: A Tour Inside Google’s Data Centers

So much of what we expe­ri­ence as dig­i­tal is intan­gi­ble. The col­or and tex­ture of the Inter­net exists only for the time we have that par­tic­u­lar site loaded. With just a click of the mouse, the lush­ness dis­ap­pears.

Except that it doesn’t, real­ly.

Back­stage, every email, pho­to, YouTube video and doc­u­ment we share lives in a very real place, which is weird when you think about it. These mas­sive data cen­ters are like vaults of ones and zeros, some of which could wreak hav­oc in the wrong hands but, hon­est­ly, most of which will nev­er mean any­thing again to any­body.

Every time any­one uses a Google prod­uct, for exam­ple, like con­duct­ing a search or look­ing up direc­tions, their com­put­er talks to one of the world’s most pow­er­ful serv­er net­works, which are housed in huge data cen­ters. Very few peo­ple actu­al­ly get to see where Google’s servers live. These data cen­ters are high secu­ri­ty, for good rea­son.

The com­pa­ny recent­ly launched Where the Inter­net Lives, part of a mini cam­paign to pull back the cur­tain on how the web works. They hired a pho­tog­ra­ph­er to cap­ture eight of their data cen­ters on, well, not real­ly film, but you get the pic­ture. Oh, and the data cen­ters aren’t brick and mor­tar either. More like glass and dry­wall and pipes. Lots and lots of pipes.

And like Willie Won­ka and his famous fac­to­ry, Google invit­ed Wired mag­a­zine reporter Stephen Levy to vis­it and write a sto­ry about the pre­vi­ous­ly off-lim­its facil­i­ties.

Take a street view tour of the North Car­oli­na data cen­ter (and see their “secu­ri­ty team” at work). Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Con­nie Zhou’s images are love­ly and the facil­i­ties are beau­ti­ful in an eerie, futur­is­tic way. See how water is used to keep the proces­sors cool, where data is backed up, failed dri­ves destroyed to keep data safe and how work­ers get around.

Google employ­ees get a fair amount of play, with shots of them work­ing to build, main­tain and repair the machines.

It’s a peek behind the scenes, but it’s also mar­ket­ing. And what’s inter­est­ing is that it’s a lot like the auto­mo­bile industry’s mar­ket­ing (think of Saturn’s ads in praise of the assem­bly-line work­er) and cam­paigns by the Big Three to attract auto work­ers in the 1940s. Some of the pho­to cap­tions recall the nos­tal­gic, Utopi­an mes­sag­ing of the post-War era, when effi­cient, mod­ern sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties were sprout­ing up around indus­tri­al cen­ters. This lunch room looks pret­ty nice, and the sauna is right out­side.

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal cul­ture and edu­ca­tion. Vis­it her work online at kater­ixwriter

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