Andrew Blum’s New Book Digs Up the Internet

The Cloud is Underground (and at the Bottom of the Ocean)

Here’s an important new book for anyone who surfs the Web: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (Harper Collins, 2012) by

geographer/journalist Andrew Blum. It’s important because Andrew describes in fascinating detail the physical, earthbound structure of the Net, reminding us that though “the Cloud” may comprise the pulses of light produced by powerful lasers, the ganglion of fiber-optic cables carrying that light are crowded together in predominantly unmarked buildings, rooms, and vaults all around us, and in the ocean too. It is a “tangled web,” to be sure, with elements of secrecy, but Andrew deftly unravels the key developments, from the first non-academic hub known as MAE-East (Metropolitan Area Exchange) in Tysons Corner, Virginia near Washington, D. C. to Facebook’s huge new data center in Prineville, Oregon.

I had breakfast with Andrew recently and he told me that a high point of his journey was seeing the cables inside Fiber Vault 1 on the Equinix campus in Ashburn, Virginia. In the book he writes that this was among the biggest places “where Internet networks connect… the nexus of nexus. Hot and still. I could smell it: it smelled like dirt.” But then he realized there were many such vaults — that the Internet was there and everywhere.

He toured the London Internet Exchange where a refrigerator-sized machine with blinking lights carried 300 gigabits of data per second (300 billion!); followed a fiber-optic cable-laying crew under the streets of Manhattan; and visited places where undersea fiber-optic cables come ashore, as at Porthcurno on England’s Cornwall coast.

The book explains a complex world that is hidden in plain sight — a true parallel universe. Indeed, reading Andrew’s book is like dipping into a somewhat more technical Harry Potter sequel where you find yourself on a real Diagon Alley face to face with a Fiber Mux Magnum Machine (it changes signals for a router). Pressing “Enter” will never be the same.

An article adapted from Andrew’s book appears in Fortune, with the

addition of these fascinating maps charting the Internet highways across the globe. The one below shows average Internet speeds and an important hub like the exchange building at 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan (images by

Nicolas Rapp; Data Geotel Communications, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, courtesy Fortune magazine).

Francois Levy and BIM

Talk of data centers and server farms makes me think of architect Francois Levy’s cool Barn Plan 450-2, which he describes  as “an efficient modern

agrarian home.” It’s suitable for a vacation or weekend house, or as a secondary structure. Barn doors on two sides of the kitchen-living area make it possible to

turn this space into an outdoor room in good weather. There’s a loft above the bedroom. The plan is part of the Signature Studio Collection. Francois Levy teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and his new book BIM in Small-Scale Sustainable Design (Wiley 2012) explains how to use digital models

for the design and documentation of houses and other buildings. BIM stands for building information modeling — with tools like ArchiCAD. Using case studies, he explains how these tools make it easier to produce sustainable architecture. These may be the machines that designed the vaults that hold the cables that hold the Internet — sounds like we’re playing that memory game about packing grandmother’s trunk.

2 responses to “Andrew Blum’s New Book Digs Up the Internet

  1. Dan,

    I thought that your review of Andrew Blum’s book was excellent. I have added it to my “wish list” for a future purchase. Thanks for good review.

    Also, there is so much interesting info in your blog that I could spend considerable time reading it. That makes for a fun few hours, but does not get the chores done. I will need to find a compromise strategy.

    How about an article on portable chicken pens (“egg mobiles” ) or the same for grazing pigs. I bet there are some wonderful designs about. I’m afraid that mine are a bit ordinary- but they work, none the less.

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