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The New York Times recently published a two-part survey arguing that the data centers owned by the technology companies we all depend on every day — Apple, Google, Facebook — are destroying the environment with their electricity usage. Experts have debated their reasoning. But what the conflict over massive data storage has really brought to my attention is the particular aesthetics of server farms and internet computing facilities.
Data storage centers are huge buildings filled with computer servers that store, back up, maintain, and spread the zeroes and ones that make our online lives possible. The structures are physical proof that the “cloud” where much of our digital possessions (music, videos, browsing history) is stored is not so immaterial as its name might suggest. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The architecture of data storage is inhuman. Servers don’t need daylight, so the spaces are lit by blinking power lights or eery fluorescence instead of windows. The monumental server blocks glow blue and pink, like alien coral reefs.
From the outside, the server farms look like — nothing. Currently, they serve no aesthetic function. These spaces are built to exist more in digital space than in the physical, so instead of embracing the visual dramatics of starchitecture, they remain anonymous, corporate. Competition over trade secrets drives companies to be even more secretive than usual, so the outer facade of these computing arenas functions as anti-architecture, aggressively projecting blankness. Check out the diminutive sign for one of Google’s data centers below.
Could these structures be called museums for data? After all, the centers are physically static, sterile spaces meant to archive and aggregate, much as institutions like the Metropolitan Museums is. The changes that take place are all behind the scenes, as data is swapped between servers and shuttled to different points around the globe, distributing cultural bits to different users. Instead of visiting an exhibition, we interact with the data museums virtually, pulling out their contents like volumes from the shelves of a vast library.
The bland, office-building style of contemporary data centers is currently undergoing a shift. As GigaOm points out, the New York Times cites out-of-date trends in server management. The world’s biggest technology companies are now striving to change how data centers are designed and how the storage system works.
Facebook is constructing a data center near the Arctic Circle, where the cold climate is inhospitable to workers but perfect to cool computers in an environmentally-friendly way. The new center will be the size of 15 football fields and is projected to be completed in 2014. Google is developing a center cooled by seawater on the site of a paper mill in Finland.
As the efficiency of the systems increase, the reliance on non-green, uninteresting cubicle-style data centers will begin to fade. For their omnipresence in our lives, data centers should be architecturally prominent, monuments to the everyday dynamism of the internet.