Adam Sommerset reviews Tubes, Andrew Blum’s brilliant journalistic take on ‘the web behind the Web’ and how the internet really works.
Next Generation Data is a stone’s throw from Newport’s Tredegar House. The company is a beneficiary of the great Lucky Goldstar project, signed off in 1996 by then Secretary of State William Hague, which never came about. Next Generation is Europe’s leading provider of ‘premium carrier-neutral co-location data centres.’ Andrew Blum in Tubes does not get to Newport but he does get to a Google data centre, or colloquially ‘a server farm’, on Oregon’s mighty Columbia River.
Water matters to these eerie places. They use electricity, and lots of it. Currently they consume two percent of the world’s energy supply, rising by twelve percent a year. That daily quintillion of data, those six billion photos on Facebook, have a cost. The Newport site should rattle the Welsh Government in its aspiration to create the world’s first sustainable nation.
Andrew Blum set himself the task of writing about the web behind the Web. He spent two years on the task. He travelled, he explored, he talked. It is a journalist’s book, but an example of what journalism at its best can do; research, diligence, thoroughness, readability, communication to a general audience.
Human cognition is hard-wired to make sense of the world via metaphor. The Web, Blum reports, is variously imagined as a mesh, a ring, a star, a radial, a cloud. ‘Tubes’ demolishes the concept of ‘the Cloud’. That’s a fluffy, come-on-in, welcoming metaphor. The reality is an infrastructure of impossible size and complexity, designed, specified and laid down by real engineers.
It is also a world of shadows. As Blum reports, Microsoft alone is owner of servers running at least to the hundreds of thousands, but the number is secret. Popular use of the web may be for chat and gossip, sale and purchase, news and onanism, but its use for virtually every critical aspect of a techno-society makes it a security concern too. Blum makes mention of previous engineering triumphs in America’s West. The Hoover Dam and its ilk all come now with cuddly Visitor Centres. Server farms sure do not; even their size and location are not easily ascertained. Some, at five hundred thousand square feet and consuming the power of a small city, have even slipped off digital maps.
The Newport site should rattle the Welsh Government in its aspiration to create the world’s first sustainable nation.
The myriad-node structure of the web may confer a sense of security. But put the cyber-Utopianism to one side and the Web is as much metal and real stuff as a Matthew Boulton-era factory. A friend of mine built up a nice, semi-rural life doing clever data stuff for a dozen big organisations. One night an errant taxi driver took a corner too fast and walloped a telegraph pole. Instantly, those twenty-four-hour hard-working servers were reduced to so much humming junk. Blum’s own interest in his subject was spurred when a squirrel chewed through the wire connecting his house to the world.
Blum is sparing with jargon. He does not avoid the intelligently multi-honed tier-1 networks, the AMS-IX NANOG DE-CIX variety with its eight hundred gigabyte processing capability. That, by the way, is per second as in one-sixtieth of a minute.
He looks on as engineers show him the thin glass strands filled with pulses of light in their millions and millions. He sees a four by six system that is made up of bundles of three millimetre patch cables, two and a half thousand of them, containing one hundred and twenty strands apiece.
A hazard of this kind of reportage can be parochialism. The world gets reduced to a three million square mile lump located between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Blum, refreshingly, has put in the legwork. From Oregon he travels to One Hundred and Eleven Eighth Avenue, a building that cost Google a cool one point nine billion in December 2010. He makes an interesting aside that New York City landlords, whose parking spaces were routinely worth eight hundred a month, paid no attention to those cables of gold being installed in their properties.
In the shadow of the O2 Stadium Blum walks along London streets with names from the city’s docklands history. He is in Nutmeg Lane, Coriander Avenue and Rosemary Drive, in order to see the vast Telehouse, where once upon a time fledgling ISP Pipex first set up shop.
The longest section of Tubes is, surprisingly, set in Cornwall’s glorious Penwith Peninsula. Tiny Porthcurno may have the loveliest of beaches but it also has a place in telecommunications history. The first transatlantic cable made landfall here, the link that made the cable part of Cable and Wireless. Founded in 1866, most of the company passed into the hands of Vodafone last July. Blum clearly enjoys Cornwall. His host is telecoms behemoth Global Crossing; that company too has now passed into history.
don’t ever accuse tech guys of lacking a sense of humour
Write a book on technology and the moment the last full stop is typed, something will be missing. Software-defined networking does not feature. SDN is the thing of the moment with big money in its pursuit. A barely up-and-running company, Nicira, changed hands last July for one point three billion. Google employs SDN across its two vast networks- the one that links its data centres together to the other that delivers its services to the outside world. Cisco may be king without rival of the router and networking world, but thousands of its staff are being shed in fear of SDN. In essence, SDN takes out the ‘carbon middleware’. That is how the engineers refer to themselves – don’t ever accuse the tech guys of lacking a sense of humour.
‘Tubes’ is a good book that takes its place alongside a very few others on the Internet that marry approachability and good sense. Its study of the hardware is a good complement to Hubert Dreyfus’ ‘On the Internet‘. Twelve years old now, Dreyfus’ human-centred argument is ever more forceful in the face of utopian babble.
Many a guru has grown rich on self-declared techno-expertise. ‘No one reads War and Peace,’ declares one expert ‘It’s too long and not so interesting.’ Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows’ contains a fair measure of cut-and-paste content, but covers the psychological research that refutes the waffle of the uninformed. ‘Tubes’ fits neatly alongside these two predecessors.