Where is the Internet actually located?

The computer corner

By Charles Miller

I really do love some of the questions thrown at me by friends, clients, and readers of this column. A good one I recently fielded is “Where is the Internet actually located?” Some people might be inclined to respond to that with a religious analogy, because it seems like the internet is everywhere at once; but that answer really does not work for me. The internet is a physical reality made up of computer hardware in our world.

The hardware used to construct the internet differs not a great deal, in theory, from the computer sitting on your desk. If you could add thousands of tons of memory chips, multiple connections to the communications backbone, and millions of hard disks to your computer, that would be a reasonable start for constructing the internet. Of course, you would not be able to connect all those hard drives to one computer; so the logical thing to do would be to divide them up into rack-mounted servers (each one holding dozens of hard disks). You could then stack these in a chassis holding thousands of disks.

Housing all that computer hardware might take a warehouse the size of Delaware, and the requirements for electric current and cooling would most definitely make it infeasible to have all the hardware in one place. In that case, you would want to distribute the hardware in various locations connected by high-speed fiber optic cables. Those locations we call data centers and they can be found in hundreds of places around the world. It makes sense to spread the locations around, so that an earthquake in California or a category five hurricane hitting the Carolinas would not be able to take the entire network down. So, the internet is located in a lot of different places.

At this point in this narrative, Google comes to my rescue with a web page you might want to visit if you are ready to quit reading here — and actually see what a datacenter looks like. Point your web browser to google.com/about/datacenters to see more, a whole lot more.

It is quite refreshing to see Google make this web page publicly available, because nobody knows how many data centers Google has; and the company is not saying. The intrigue surrounding its facilities is only deepened by Google’s secrecy about its operations. The company believes its data center operations give it a competitive advantage, and says publicly as little as possible about these facilities. Google believes that details, such as the size and power usage of its data centers, could be valuable to competitors.

The images on the Google site show row after row of computer hardware in one of its datacenters. Look closely at the pictures and you can find a Star Wars storm trooper guarding a rack of servers. Each row contains many racks of servers, and each server holds many hard disks. Collectively they make up a giant computer having many million times the capacity of one laptop.

One thing about the pictures that will surprise some viewers is all the pipes and how much a datacenter looks like an oil refinery. A center housing several hundred thousand spinning hard disks generates a tremendous amount of heat, and so large pumps and pipes are used to move cooling water where it is needed.

A data center could conceivably need 50 to 100 megawatts of electric power, or enough to power a small city. Owners and operators of data centers are dedicated to efficient use of this energy, because wasting it costs money.

After looking at its web page and at the awe-inspiring scope of Google’s data centers, realize this is only one company that makes up just a part of the internet. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and many hundreds of other corporations have their own networks of data centers connected to the internet, too.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.


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