Jan 4, 2013

IO Data Center in Phoenix


Field trip!
Amanda and I had a fantastic opportunity to tour the io Data center in Phoenix, AZ yesterday that lead to a number of gaps in my understanding of the internet being filled. It turns out if you want to check something out, all you have to do is call and ask. Pretty cool, right?



This video demonstrates what io's data center looks like right down to the hard drives. I saw this before the tour and thought it might make sense only if you had five degrees in internet technology and systems engineering. It's more or less a very clean looking method of stacking fancy boxes inside of other fancy boxes. After the tour, though, I found that thought is mostly right. Nearly all the boxes in the video are one of four kinds of box: power, air temperature/humidity control, racks (slots for computers to be stacked), and computers (servers). Somehow through all of this the internet is made possible.

After explaining to our tour guide just how little I understood about the nuts and bolts of the internet, he laid out the process in a very simple way:

At a very basic level a data center is like an apartment complex that rents out space for websites to live in. Companies pay for rooms (racks) to put their furniture (servers). The furniture holds the websites, which in this metaphor would be like clothes and pets and things.

At another end of the data center is a room where internet providers like Comcast or Time Warner rent space to put computers that direct traffic. When you type a .com into your browser, the request makes it's way to this room first, and your internet provider determines which room in the complex has the website you're looking for. Of course, there are many data centers around the world, so if the website you're looking for isn't at the data center near your, the request is forwarded to the correct one. Neat!

A couple fun facts:
  • The io data center in Phoenix is the second largest consumer of electricity in the entire state of Arizona (second only to the copper mill)
  • So that the websites at this data center never go down, they have generators large enough to power the entire city of Flagstaff, AZ for a week.
  • Before the generators come on, they have enough battery power to run the entire thing for the six seconds it takes for generators to kick in. So that's enough stored power to run Flagstaff for six seconds all on batteries just waiting. 
  • If you watch CBS Sports online, you're doing so from a rack in Phoenix, AZ.
  • Computers make a lot of heat, so to cool it off they have to blow cool air on the computers constantly-- as a result the inside of a traditional datacenter is loud. Yelling at each other to talk loud.
  • To get to a computer in the data center you have to go through:
    -Steel pylons at the front gate
    -Keypad at the front door
    -Electronic key coded doors inside
    -Retina scans
    -Combination locks on the racks

    Data in these centers is very protected, and there are even rooms in there we weren't allowed to go near. 
The staff at io were incredibly cool to us through the whole experience. Our guide provided a very thorough tour chock full of information about their innovative systems and the internet in general. It's very cool to see an infrastructure so high in demand that innovative technology can flourish. To cool the computers, for instance, they have an ice ball maker that runs at night so the air temperature can be brought down during the day with energy generated during off peak hours. They've developed software that monitors the entire data center from the smallest light on a computer to the global status of all their data centers. Our guide told us a story about the CEO who switched an entire data center over to generator power from his tablet. On the other side of the country at two in the morning he was watching a hurricane travel up the coast on the weather channel and determined it would be cheaper/safer to run the center off generators, so he made the switch at home.

Everything is super controlled of course, so we weren't allowed to bring cameras in. Instead, here are a few images I could find online of the interior. Take some time if you can and you live in a big city to tour one of these facilities, it's just cool looking if nothing else!



These are server pods that are io
developed and built at the data center.

Here's a look inside the pod once it's fully outfitted with servers.
These are servers inside racks within a server pod.
The control room for the entire center. "The Kingdom"
starring Jamie Foxx apparently filmed a scene or two in here.






Jan 2, 2013

What I Don't Know: A Big Subject


The holidays are over, and we packed away the tree today. Having had a terrific Christmas in Phoenix, we're now gearing up to head out on the road and shoot this doc-- so let's figure out where to start!

To begin with, I'll sum up what I know about the internet: 

1. I absolutely need it everyday in order to conduct business. 
2. I use it to keep up with friends.
3. I send my family photos of the cat. 

Sometimes I need a WEP key, sometimes I need a cord, but either way I'm sure there's a cable involved that leaves my house and snakes it's way into the ground. Typically there's one or maybe two different companies who I can select to send me a bill every month to keep this thing going, but beyond that I'd have to use a lot of vague hand gestures and grunts to convey my understanding of the rest of the story. 

Ok, I don't know much, so here's what I'll do to fill in the blanks-- as Amanda and I move around the country investigating, I'll pose a question I run into on twitter @willhyler and answer it as best I can. I'll either ask the people we talk to, or maybe an answer will come from someone online. This way we can start from the place of complete ignorance that I currently find myself in, and move toward a better understanding of how this whole system works. 

Here we go!