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Big Brother and 1984 meet at Mount Holly

London Observer | April 15, 2007
John Naughton

The future, as the novelist William Gibson observed, 'is already here - it's just not evenly distributed'. One place where it might be found is Mount Holly, Berkeley County, South Carolina. I've just flown over it (courtesy of Google Earth), and you'd never think it was a place where our destiny lies. The terrain is flat and wooded and includes some magnolia plantations. There's a highway and what looks like a railway line (the image resolution isn't great). The nearest town is Goose Creek, a settlement of 30,000 souls.

So why is this obscure spot a pivot of the universe? Because Google is to locate one of its server farms there. The decision was announced at a pork barbecue held on 6 April for 300 dignitaries. Google executives gave a short presentation , announced a $407,000 donation to the community and invited questions. The idea that these might require answers did not occur to the Googlers, but that is the Company Way.

For example, one question concerned the plant's consumption of electricity and water. (Server farms require massive quantities of the former, and a good deal of the latter for cooling purposes.) 'No comment,' was the response, later expanded by Rhett Weiss, Google's head of strategic development to: 'We're in a highly competitive industry and, frankly, one or two little pieces of information like that in the hands of our competitors can do us considerable damage.'

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South Carolina politicians and officials bent over backwards to persuade Google to build at Mount Holly. 'The governor, department of commerce, and Berkeley county officials have been wonderfully helpful during our evaluation,' said Lloyd Taylor, Google's director of global operations. State governor Mark Sanford responded: 'Given the stature of this company and the magnitude of this investment, this is a real win for South Carolina that will have a tremendous impact on the local and state economy'.

As a token of its appreciation, 'the state legislature updated the state tax code to exempt the electricity and the capital investment in equipment necessary for this kind of facility used in the web search portal and internet service provider industries from sales tax, just like what is done for the manufacturing sector'. Except that Google doesn't make anything - except money.

The scenes at Mount Holly are being replicated across the US and other parts of the world. Along with Yahoo and Microsoft, Google is breeding gigantic server farms wherever there is reliable electricity, cheap water and appreciative politicians. On 27 March, Microsoft opened a 470,000 sq ft one in Quincy, Washington State, not far from one Google has already built in Oregon.

The Microsoft site has nuclear-style security, but an enterprising journalist was allowed a brief visit. 'It's easy to get lost inside Microsoft's main building,' he reported, 'which contains long halls with a tile floor and a maze of rooms centring around five 12,000 sq ft brain centres that contain tens of thousands of computer servers. Each server room has two adjoining rooms lined with refrigerator-sized air-conditioning units to keep the temperature between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Another room contains row after row of batteries to kick in for 18 seconds if a power failure should occur before the trucksized back-up generators fire up.'

Already there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of such centres around the world. This is the bricks-and-mortar reality of Web 2.0. 'The network is the computer' is the mantra underpinning this brave new world. The problem is that the network can only be the computer if it has thousands of server farms. Behind the airy dreams of Web 2.0, in other words, is a grisly reality of colossal computing installations consuming vast quantities of electricity and water, simply to prevent them melting.

And behind that nightmare lies another. If the rush to web services continues, in 10 years all our personal data - emails, documents, photographs, music, movies - will reside in these server farms. Of course, the companies will swear blind they will defend our privacy to the last. Until, of course, the government arrives with an injunction, a revised Patriot Act, or our own dear Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Welcome to 1984, folks. It's been a bit delayed, but we're getting there.

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