MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen. The Internet is one of those things most of us use without thinking too much about how it works. It's virtual. It's cyberspace. But you know, the Web doesn't exist without very real facilities. Independent producer Adam Burke paid a visit to one in Las Vegas, and he brings us this report.
ADAM BURKE: Just about every day, most people focus their attentions on a luminous screen and plunge into the Internet.
(Soundbite of a person typing)
Unidentified Person: (Reading) Please note. This is not an all-staff email. You are among...
BURKE: Some for a few minutes, some a few hours, and then you've got those poor folks who get lost in there for days, where windows melt into windows. Email, social networking, online journals, shopping, phone calls, bank transactions, billing and clerical records, news gathering, video, live war games. Like the rooms of an infinitely large library, this is a realm that consumes all we want to give it and more. And as we do this, millions of other human beings do the same, simultaneously plugging into the world at the speed of light.
So let's touch our feet on solid ground, shall we? And visit the new Switch Communications Data Center in Las Vegas, which from the outside, is remarkably unremarkable.
(Soundbite of intercom)
Unidentified Man: This is security. Can I help you?
BURKE: They like it that way. But security...
Unidentified Man: Your name is?
BURKE: It's tight. Make it inside the front door, and it feels a bit ominous. Blast-proof walls, security guards and black paramilitary gear, the kind of turnstiles you see in a bank vault. Communications director Jeff Ames say this room is what's known as a man trap.
Mr. JEFF AMES (Director, Switch Communications Data Center in Las Vegas): Nobody comes or goes or moves about the building without being observed, recorded and monitored. And it's critical because we have everything from financial institutions to medical institutions to government, all of which are extremely concerned about the safety of their data.
BURKE: In the last decade, data centers have sprouted up all over the world. Some are privately owned and operated for single corporations. Others, like this one, are called co-location facilities, where companies can lease space.
Mr. AMES: How do I send you an email across the globe and it's there instantly? That's all happening in centers like this, and it's pushed and pulled by systems that require power to do it.
BURKE: We arrive to a long, cavernous hallway.
Mr. AMES: This area right here is what we call our power spine.
BURKE: Painted steel beams run the entire length like a giant, red ribcage built to support the massive load of copper needed to feed 100 megawatts of power.
Mr. AMES: So when this facility is completely occupied and completely using the power that we have available, this will be the largest power-consuming source in Nevada. We already outpace the big casinos.
BURKE: In the belly of the building, everything is massive. And though the operation seems complex at first, there's a common denominator here. Every detail is geared toward the care and feeding of machines.
Mr. AMES: We want that air to be perfectly clean, perfectly humidified to the right levels and perfect temperature. And the exhaust, we want to get that heat away and contain it as fast as we can to maintain the cleanest, coolest environment for those machines.
BURKE: And in a building that's the size of 10 football fields, they can cycle all the air inside in two and a half minutes.
Mr. AMES: You know, the enemy to computing is heat and dirt. The faster the clock speed, the more heat they generate. The more processors on a chip, the hotter it gets. And the whole push for more is never going to stop, in my opinion.
BURKE: In the past, that whole push for more was satisfied by building faster servers and processing chips. That's what gave us better PCs year after year in the 1990s. But the combination of widely available broadband and giant data centers has turned the Internet itself into one giant computer. Individuals and corporations alike are no longer held back by the limitations of their hardware. Now, they can plug into the cloud.
(Soundbite of industrial noise)
In one section of the building, Dan Budser(ph) and a team of engineers from Sun Microsystems are setting up racks and racks of servers.
Mr. DAN BUDSER(ph) (Sun Microsystems): This is the sound of lots of data being crunched and lots of data being stored.
BURKE: Cloud computing is the new capital-A answer for Internet giants like Sun because it allows them to sell services to users, large and small.
Mr. BUDSER: Anyone out there who has an idea can come to a cloud provider and get just the amount of capacity they need, and then grow that as their business prospers. So this really creates a lot of chance, a lot of opportunity for people to enter new businesses, enter new markets, bring new jobs and new services to this economy.
BURKE: For the industry, this is a brand-new morning, described by engineers using terms like potential, efficiencies and growth. It's meant billions of dollars of investment in fiber optic cables and data centers all over the planet. Sounds great, right?
Mr. NICHOLAS CARR (Author, "The Big Switch"): There are utopian visions from some people that, you know, this is the great future of the human race, that we all kind of blend into a collective intelligence. ..TEXT: BURKE: Nicholas Carr is author of the book, "The Big Switch," in which he hails the economic and technological benefits of the Internet. But he's concerned that as our private information is centralized, it no longer belongs to us. He also believes the Internet is diminishing the individuality of each and every user.
Mr. CARR: We're becoming more adept at living our life through a screen, through the manipulation of abstract symbols. And what we seem to be doing, I think, is becoming subservient to the machine and the software running inside it. You know, what our role becomes, as people, is to feed our own little bits of data and own little bits of information into these massive data-processing machines.
BURKE: But there's no going back. And anyway, Jeff Ames says a world without these machines is a world we wouldn't want to live in.
Mr. AMES: If there weren't the kind of centers like this, if there weren't the communication cores like this, I think it would change a lot. The movement of food, the movement of water, the transmission of power, the advancements in space, the advancements in science and medical, all are done by leveraging compute power.
BURKE: It's that question of handing over power, where we leave off and compute power takes over, that's at the heart of our relationship with machines. It's a strange and potent relationship with lots of unknowns. Even a straight-shooting engineer like Dan Budser has experienced those moments of wonder.
Mr. BUDSER: There is something that I notice when I'm working here late at night. The building feels alive. This amount of power has a certain sound to it, and it kind of sounds like a buzz. All around you, the other end of these machines, there may be tens of thousands or millions of people doing what they need to do. They have no idea that these things are here. This is the Internet. We're sitting in the Internet. We're surrounded by it. It's breathing in the wall behind us.
BURKE: For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.
(Soundbite of music)
COHEN: NPR's Day to Day continues.
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