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Walking Around In Someone Else’s Brain

December 3, 2014

I can’t tell you where I was.

I can’t tell you who I was with.

I can’t even tell you how many security gates I had to go through to get there.

But, the place was AWESOME.

Sometime in the my travels over the past months, I got a chance to peek inside one of the largest data centers in the world. More than a peek, really. I got to stroll the halls and wander from building to building. I’ve been in computers my entire career. I’ve worked for Microsoft, WordPerfect, and a large non-profit that spanned the globe. I’m kind of jaded.

I was awed.

I’m going to take you on a mini tour and explain why I felt like I was walking through someone else’s brain. First, I have to blindfold you, put you on an airplane to an undisclosed location, bundled you into a waiting SUV with the windows blacked out, and drive you to a non descript building that looks like a big warehouse with a fence around it.

And that’s where our tour will end, since we didn’t send your name in a day ahead of time. But, you can ride with me.

I was struck by the fact that I didn’t see another person until I had been through 3 security gates. The first was to get into the parking lot. I had to speak to an unseen security guard. She was unseen to me, I’m sure that she had a great view of me, my car and my license plate number before I even pressed the intercom.

After verifying that I was on the list, a gate lifted and I drove over spikes that were designed to shred my tires if I backed up. From the parking lot, there was a metal turnstile to get to the sidewalk. Another buzz on the intercom. Another verification that I was the same guy who drove in.

Then, a man-trap to enter the building.

A man-trap is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a sort of trap for people. If you’ve ever had to buzz through two doors, that area after the first door, but before the second is a man-trap. It prevents anyone from tailgating in behind you.

Once in the lobby I finally got to see another person. She was behind bulletproof glass. I passed in my ID and she passed me back a security badge.


I might be an invited guest, but I wasn’t going to be allowed to wander around and check the medicine cabinets and closets unattended.

Through another security door and I met my guide. He’s also my friend. That’s how I got this tour. They don’t open these rides up to the public. Let’s call my friend Fred.

Fred took us, (another person who actually worked for the company had joined the tour) and we got to go see the data center. There were many more security gates before we got to the good stuff.

Finally, we were in a broad hallway with 15 foot ceilings, a concrete floor and every 60 feet or so a locked door with a badge reader and an iris scanner. Fred would stare into the light until the computer was sure that his eyeballs were allowed in. Then, he would badge in and open the door. As we entered the room an alarm sounded for the second and third person. Anti-tailgating devices.

The rooms were equipped with sensors that counted how many people came in. Only one badged in so the other two set of alarms. Fred explained what would normally happen

This alarm is ringing in security. Normally, they would send a guard to investigate, but they know we are doing a tour so they’ll ignore it.

Here’s where the brain mapping comes in. The room we were standing in was 25,000 square feet. I cannot even imagine how many racked computers it had. This was only one of many rooms that supported the work this company did. Millions of transaction per second. Xenobytes or Zettabytes worth of data. They had rooms devoted just to the databases. Other rooms dedicated to just the web servers. Still other rooms devoted just to the network switching.

It reminded me of a huge brain, with memories stored in parts, and neurons shooting back and forth at blazing speed. I pictured the crew of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek when they beamed to the Borg ship. The Borg didn’t see them as threats, so they simply walked around. It had that feel to it.

Interior Borg Cube

But, what was really fascinating was when Fred started to explain the innovations and cutting edge technology they were using. There are parts that I barely understood let alone could remember, but a couple of things stuck out.

First was the color of their server racks. You probably don’t give much thought to what color a computer is. I’ve worked in data centers and some of the coolest hardware comes in futuristic looking black cabinets. But, the racks that the servers actually get bolted to are normally black or grey. At Fred’s company they were white. He explained,

White reflects light better. In a room this size I can cut my light bill significantly with white racks and a lower wattage bulb.

The white racks were custom and cost more, but the energy savings more than made up for it.

Data centers are noisy places. It because they require huge fans and air conditioning units to keep the data center cool. Fred took us into one room that was eerily quiet. He showed us a piece of equipment and explained

The servers on this rack are water cooled. We run water through this device here and it cools the servers. We then use the hot water elsewhere on the campus. I can nearly double the amount of servers I put in a rack when it’s water cooled. Saves a ton on energy costs.

Finally, he took us to an observation deck where we could look out and see row upon row of short black boxes. They were fuel cells. They used natural gas, but not by burning it.

We run the gas over an ionized plate and it separates it chemically. We get energy, water and heat. We use the water in our liquid cooling racks. We are working on a method to capture the heat and reuse it. Still some work to do on that.

Eventually, the tour was over and I made my way back out the multiple layers of security. I came away with two thoughts.

First, I’ve never really worked in a secure environment. I thought I did. My current job has 4 badge readers that I have to go through to get to my desk. I had to go through four security gates to even get in the building.

Second, we have no idea what innovations other people and companies might be implementing. I toured the datacenter for a technology company, but the work they were doing in energy conservation was truly impressive.

And finally, I thought, “Yeah, this is a REALLY big brain.”
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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