According to a new book by Andrew Blum called “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” Google is pretty shy with sharing details about its inner workings. The novel details Blum’s journey across the world to different buildings and centers which make up the Internet. The author shares his thoughts on the mysterious lack of physicality the Internet has in most of our minds, and his aim is to pin down exactly what--and where--the Internet is.
I wrote a review of the book available here, but in all honesty the scope of such a premise – to set out to define in real world terms the ethereal Internet – brings up a good deal of topics that can’t be covered in just a book review. Blum discovered what he set out to discover, yes, but in all his traveling, meeting and researching, he ended up with some information he didn’t necessarily set out to find.
This is where Google comes in. As one of the biggest sites on the Internet as well as a successful worldwide conglomerate that is practically synonymous with the very word “Internet,” Google and Blum were bound to meet up at some point in regards to this novel. How could Blum define the Internet without mentioning Google?
As it turns out, however, Google wasn’t so keen on being mentioned.
“Out of all the companies I spoke with, Google was the one that shared the least,” said Blum. Much of the book deals with the specific places of the Internet, one of which is Google’s 111 Eighth Avenue Manhattan building in New York. Google bought the building for $1.9 billion in 2010, and Blum wondered why the space was worth all that money to the company. So he went there.
Blum described the building as “a massive building, with nearly three million square feet of space spread across an entire city block.” He noted that Google maintained the reason for the purchase was “to accommodate the expanding number of employees. They already had two thousand people working there and were hiring like crazy. Owning the building outright would give them the flexibility they needed in the long term.”
After all, Google had been operating there under lease terms since 2006, but they weren’t the only one. Now they were – Blum described the purchase as “a little like American Airlines buying LaGuardia Airport--and claiming it only wanted it for the parking garage.” It was enough to raise eyebrows amongst Internet infrastructure people, as the building sits atop the “Ninth Avenue fiber highway,” making network connectivity there extra-secure.
Blum started asking around about Google much like he was doing about every other factor of the Internet, but he didn’t find himself getting anywhere.
“Google kept everything top secret, threatening legal action against anyone who even spoke its name,” he writes. Blum visited Google’s data center in The Dalles, Oregon, and his experience there was one of the most fascinating parts of the book. He felt he was violating something or someone almost immediately, as he found out “Google’s first rule of data center PR was: don’t go into the data center,” and he was doing just that.
Blum was faced with “scripted non-answers” when he asked, while touring the facilities, what a certain building held inside, or whether that area was for storage, or if that machine processed search queries. Blum described the data-center as a campus, with “loading docks all around, but no windows…making the place look like a penitentiary.”
The final straw for Blum was his meeting with an employee named Betts, who he describes as “sullen—preferring to say nothing at all than to risk stepping outside the narrow box PR had inscribed for him. We talked about the weather.”
But don’t start thinking this is business as usual. The Internet industry isn’t all like this, as Blum learns upon visiting Facebook – “Facebook, in contrast, was the opposite. They believed that this was your data. You, the public, had a right to understand where it was and what they did with it.”
The physical data center of Facebook was also in Oregon, and Blum described the difference he discovered in the ways the two companies’ data centers fit into the respective communities. “Facebook was determined to be wide open,” wrote Blum, quoting Facebook’s director of infrastructure from a press conference when he said “It’s time to stop treating data centers like Fight Club.”
The openness associated with Facebook was refreshing for Blum after his frustrating attempts with Google, and he described them as being “happy to show off Facebook’s data center.”
Importantly, Blum realized the true meaning behind this openness, and why Facebook’s methods are better than Google’s in this regard: “Over time I recognized that their openness wasn’t merely polite, but philosophical—an attitude in part derived from the Internet’s legendary robustness.”
In other words, Blum learned that “the Internet is profoundly public. It has to be. If it were hidden, how would all the networks know where to connect?”
Though the Google-Facebook comparison wasn’t the purpose of the book, Blum hit upon a fundamental difference between companies in the Internet industry, and these insights are just a few of many he makes in “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.”
“Everything is out in the open,” Blum writes “for those who know how to see it.”
If you read Tubes, you will.
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