This article was originally published in Domus 948/June 2011
How sharing can be structured
When we talk about the architecture of the Internet, the image that comes to mind is of a map of Internet nodes. It was printed onto a poster that was taped to a wall in the Wired.com offices when I worked there. Groups of servers clustered together like neurons, connected by electricity and organised according to some gravity-live principle, the network effect. What mattered was the structure of the information–what servers were connected to what other servers.
That was the vision of the first generation of the Internet. While nominally networks connected together people, really they connected people with stuff, be it physical or digital. Google, eBay and Amazon were the defining companies of this era because they were the best at connecting you with what you wanted. You searched and found within the giant pulsating pile of computers hooked together by fibre-optic cables.
In the first years of the millennium, the idea that people wanted information alone began to wane. There were early warning signs of different types—BlackPlanet, LiveJournal.com, Match.com, Friendster—which, if you'd had the right divination skills, might have told you that a blue giant was about to make an appearance, accompanied by a little speedy bird that tweeted. People wanted to find people. They wanted to share their lives. To meet this need, dozens of new companies bloomed into being. While Twitter provides the Internet's racing pulse, Facebook provides its social plumbing. Mark Zuckerberg's creation is used by 700 million people. While the details of Facebook's success can be debated, the impulse it taps cannot. People have become spectacularly willing to share their lives with other people on the Internet. The definition of privacy is as unstable as the concept of intellectual property. In many different spheres, cooperation seems as viable a strategy as competition. Everyone shares and likes.
The questions that matter now are ones about how sharing
should be structured. Some are simple. Like buttons on Facebook
restrict any sort of commentary, providing only the simple act
of saying, "I was here." Creative Commons licenses for creative
work allow content creators to define exactly who can and
cannot use their work. Wikipedians navigate the difficulties of
creating the world's most stupefying storehouse of knowledge.
The most complex arrangements relate to open-source projects
like the Linux operating system. Far-flung networks of
collaborators come together to create something they all want.
The drama and production of such enterprises is Dilbertian, but
it challenges many of the stricter notions of how capitalists are
supposed to think.
But for all the success of digital projects of this type, what about the real world? It's one thing to get a bunch of nerds together to build software, but try and design a building like that. Well, maybe you can. Or at least it's HVAC system. Facebook, the arbiter of sharing, has decided to push out its own designs for Web servers—and the buildings that house them—into the open ecosystem without any constraints on their usage.
The company's Open Compute Project describes in detail how to construct an energy-efficient data centre from the components inside the servers to the racks they're held on, and to the electrical and mechanical systems that feed and cool them. Presumably, Facebook stands to gain from the improvements other people make on its ideas in creating their own data centres. In the meantime, they're willing to give what they've got away.
The company's data-centre support systems, at least as presented in the Open Computer Project, can be finely tuned to the climate and location of its latest data centre in Prineville, Oregon. The ductless cooling system automatically changes its operation–deploying its economiser, evaporative cooling and humidification–based on what the air outside is like. The electrical system depends on the installation of a new substation that was built to bring power into the building. There isn't much revolutionary that meets the eye in Facebook's open designs for its data centre, certainly nothing quite as fascinating as you'd find on the Open Architecture Network.
But the company says building and running their computers in the
way they've described is cheaper and less energy-intensive than
the alternatives. That's something. It should also remind us that
the Internet is a real thing, made up of computers and people
and buildings that house them both. The maps we used to make
of the architecture of the Internet were blinded by the fact
that there was an Internet. It was so novel to send information
flying around the world and the production of digital goods so
relatively small that it was easy to be starstruck by the Internet,
to forget its thingness. The maps that matter to today's datacentre
architects are less the ones on the wall at Wired and more
the ones that show climate and the location of power lines. The
bigger the Internet becomes, the more it is a part of the normal,
While the climate and strictures of the real world bear down on Internet companies, Facebook, at least, is attempting to meet those challenges with the share and share alike consciousness that has developed online.
Alexis Madrigal, journalist and writer