Air Under Lockdown: Temperature and Security in the Global Data Center
This is a conference presentation I delivered as part of the panel “Data, Extraction, and Global Infrastructures” at SCMS 2021, held virtually. It draws substantially from my dissertation, as well as forthcoming article in the journal Media Fields.
Standing in the dim light, LEDs flickering before me, the occasional clanking duct punctuating the dull roar of whirring fans, I thought it would be colder. I didn’t know what to expect from my visit to DC11, a “peering point” in Ashburn, Virginia owned by the multinational data center company Equinix. Its servers, which route the internet’s traffic and form its substance, need the cold to counter the massive amounts of heat they generate. Here in DC11’s windowless bowels, it’s an ominously neutral sort of temperature. The main floor resembles stock photographs of data centers, all rows of black boxes locked behind chain link fencing. Our tour guide tells us it’s a testament to the efficiency of DC11’s air conditioning systems. If we were to go into the aisles themselves—where, he reminds us, we were emphatically not allowed—we would feel the intensity of alternating rows of hot and cold air, the former pulled up into ventilation shafts and the latter piped down to the servers. He leads us to a clearing at the end of an aisle where we can stand below an open duct. Frigid air blasts down, the air that keeps the internet from burning itself out.
My project in this paper begins from the confluence of two objects inside DC11, the air conditioning duct and the chain link fence, and the concomitant projects they represent, that of keeping the internet cool and keeping the internet secure. I argue that under the ever-present threat of climate collapse, air conditioning in data centers becomes not only a technique to militate against thermal meltdown, but furthermore serves a broader project of maintaining—often violently—the internet’s physical and virtual security. To make this argument, I attend both to the technologies data centers such as DC11 use to lock themselves down in the event of climatological disaster, as well as to the cultural narratives—encoded within investor reports, white papers, and publicity materials—through which companies such as Equinix frame climate change as a data security issue. Together, these narratives construe an internet at war with the environment, a war that Equinix seeks to persuade its customers that it alone can win. This martial approach is consonant with what scholars such as Benjamin Bratton and Mél Hogan have noted as the tech industry’s broader project of establishing itself as quasi-sovereign agents, capable of organizing space and energy as would a nation-state. As an infrastructural technology, air conditioning enmeshes anxieties around securitization and climate collapse. Air conditioning the internet then produces highly differentiated aerial conditions, in which some populations have access to secure atmospheres by forcing vulnerable ones upon others.
Lateral to these concerns, I propose “conditioning” as a theoretical keyword for media studies, one that links the field’s long-standing interests in the cultural effects of global technological systems to related projects in the environmental humanities. From the Latin condiciōn-em, “a condition” has for most of the word’s history referred to legal contexts, as stipulations that must be satisfied for the fulfillment of a contract. In the industrial 19th century, “to condition” came to mean testing the quality of goods—it’s in this sense that we “condition” the air. Specifically, I use “conditioning” to describe how digital media shape environments. By placing “condition” in its verb sense, I draw attention to how media give rise to multiple overlapping “conditions” (in the nominal sense) that constitute our contemporary techno-environmental landscape. For media studies, I propose “conditioning” to articulate the ongoing work digital media perform to imagine the environment as computational. Conversely, for the environmental humanities, “conditioning” demonstrates the absolute necessity of bringing media studies to bear on its enterprise, as digital media are one of the—if not the—primary actors of contemporary environmental transformations. In short, I seek to draw these fields together in a shared analysis.
But enough theorizing. Air conditioning technologies are ones of regulation and influence, what Nicole Starosielski terms “standardization.”1 At their most sophisticated, they are digital media in their own rights. Data centers rely on distributed arrays of temperature and humidity sensors to detect aerial conditions and respond to failure points. Wireless sensor networks, or WSNs, allow data centers such as DC11 to monitor temperature continuously and shift cooling in real time.2 Data from these networks power thermal models with which data centers simulate everything from increased energy loads to natural disasters. Data centers can run WSNs on the servers themselves, but more often deploy “out-of-band” networks, or separate computing devices that run in parallel to the center’s main servers. The result is a secondary computing network devoted exclusively to temperature sensing and control.
DC11 is one of Equinix’s “IBX” data centers, designed specifically for businesses, although its security features are more in line with bank vaults. Equinix has gone so far as to patent its security system, which tracks employees, clients, and visitors alike across multiple levels of gated security, replete with cameras and biometric hand scanners.3 These measures ramp up exponentially as individuals move from outside the building, to a manned security desk, to the main body of the data centers, onto the floor with the servers, and finally into the cages themselves.4 On my tour, my guide elaborated even more baroque security measures for those willing to pay, from 24/7 armed guards to infrared trip wires. These measures certainly aim for dramatic overkill, but more to the point, as Equinix describes in its patent, they allow the data center access to unprecedented levels of information about the movements of individuals inside its walls. Indeed, Equinix proposes a security system driven by a “wide area network,” or WAN, which materially resembles the WSNs that control its air conditioning systems. The point of both is to condition the data center’s entire material holdings, from air to people, as information.
DC11’s physical security features are primarily aimed at deterring rogue individuals: lone hackers who would enter the building and compromise the servers. However, Equinix has grown more sensitive in recent years to security threats posed by nonhuman forces, which would render their centers inoperable rather than steal information. Climate change poses a range of threats to data center integrity, from sea level rise threatening coastal infrastructure to natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes damaging networking equipment.5 In their 2019 SEC filings, Equinix explicitly notes that climate change poses an existential threat to its operations. It writes: “the frequency and intensity of severe weather events are reportedly increasing locally and regionally as part of broader climate changes . . . [posing] long-term risks of physical impacts to our business.”6 Natural disasters pose a threat to energy infrastructures as well as individual buildings. “Each new [data center] requires access to significant quantities of electricity,” Equinix writes, “limitations on generation, transmission and distribution [due to climate change] may limit our ability to obtain sufficient power capacity."7 In a 2018 annual report on “corporate sustainability” to its investors, Equinix states that “[it] will prioritize responsible energy usage and high standards of safety, and commit to protecting against external threats such as climate change and data security.”8
Like the rest of humanity, Equinix has few tools available to stem rising tides and catastrophic storms. When it builds new data centers in vulnerable areas, it can do so with increased levels of architectural resiliency, but that doesn’t help existing data centers. As such, Equinix’s most powerful tool for climate security is more abstract: that of redundancy. DC11 operates on what the data center industry calls an “N+1” redundancy model for its power and “N+2” model for cooling.9 This means that onsite, it has everything to maintain its operations, plus minimal backup to support one or two components failing. As for the data themselves, they are not necessarily made redundant in the way power, cooling, and other physical infrastructures are. Data redundancy is the responsibility of the client rather than the data center. All that matters to Equinix is the infrastructure.
Equinix’s collapsing of climate change and securitization takes on explicit military parallels. The United States military, particularly under the Obama administration, has repeatedly cited climate change as a potential threat to national security.10 In November 2013, the Defense Department released a report concerning the melting Arctic Ocean, which it argued presents new opportunities for trade routes and resource extraction, control over which may lead to international disputes.11 Equinix has anticipated these developments. It trumpets its Arctic data centers as potential entry points for new trans-oceanic cables capable of bypassing Asia’s land routes in favor of more direct submarine connections between Europe and Japan. Seen through this perspective, DC11’s bunker-style security has more in architectural common with northern Virginia’s military bases than its high-tech offices. Political theorist Jairus Grove has argued that war has become the primary ordering principle of a society in the throes of a climate crisis: “[war] presents itself as an ordering principle or form of ecology . . . while also undermining the image of the world as one ruled by laws of a singular transcendental order.” Presented with the disorder of climatological catastrophe, Equinix and its peers offer clients the feeling of order through security.
Air conditioning drives the maintenance of the security state thanks in no small part to the laws of thermodynamics, in which thermal energy dissipates by going elsewhere. Data centers are that elsewhere. In turn, they give rise to other elsewhere: surrounding areas that absorb their thermal and atmospheric pollution. To borrow from Giorgio Agamben, data centers are thermal states of exception, where the upper classes transfer their computing energy, and where it pollutes in turn. For Agamben, a state of exception is a “threshold, or a zone of indifference” established by a state, in which normal rules of engagement (say, concerning the legality of torture) are suspended.12 Like illegal CIA black sites, data centers as thermal states of exception must operate under conditions of secrecy. The cloud exists such that computer users in the West never need confront the material costs of their own computing, all the while drawing computing further under the control of corporate actors. Key to Agamben’s concept is that the maintenance of states of exception characterize, indeed define, sovereign power. However, with rare exception, states do not control cloud infrastructures. Private tech companies do. This shift is emblematic of what Benjamin Bratton terms “platform sovereignty,” or the tendency of modern tech companies to assume functions originally exclusive to the state. In building vast global infrastructures that contribute to climate change—whose entire function is to launder energy from the West elsewhere—tech companies have assumed the sovereign power to wield pollution. This is air under lockdown, in which the air of the wealthy stays pure while the air of others grows hotter, dirtier, and more untenable.
DC11 becomes a site of acute thermodynamics, as server heat multiplies server heat. For Equinix, securitization fuels the air’s ongoing conditioning. Imagining the air as data enables its unprecedented surveillance. In a way, DC11’s vision of a bunker-style security, in which air’s movements are tightly controlled, runs counter to recent tendencies in security studies, which as Lisa Parks13 and Peter Adey14 have each noted, trend toward forms of atmospheric dispersal rather than traditional models of centralization. This what Adey calls “security atmospheres”: the security of millions of location-tracking smart phones triangulating individuals in real time rather than the classic closed-circuit camera. Security is “atmospherically distributed” and “immersive.”15 However, I would conclude by suggesting that DC11 represents the physical incarnation of the paradox at the heart of cloud computing, namely that our digital systems are not disaggregated, but rather displaced. Our ubiquitous devices are now little but terminals accessing computers elsewhere. Proliferating the cloud entails centralizing the data center, as servers' thermal requirements are so specific as to be onerous if further decentralized. Dispersed, immersive, atmospheric security in one location requires centralized, locked-down security in another. These atmospheres are definitionally uneven. DC11 is simply one of many extrusions of a globally distributed security atmosphere.
Starosielski, Nicole. 2016. “Thermocultures of Geological Media.” Cultural Politics 12 (3): 293–309, pp. 302 ↩︎
Khan, Samee U., and Albert Y. Zomaya, eds. 2015. Handbook on Data Centers. New York, NY: Springer New York. ↩︎
Avery IV, Albert M., Jay Steven Adelson, and Derrald Curtis Vogt. 2005. United States Patent: 6971029 - Multi-ringed internet co-location facility security system and method. 6971029, issued November 29, 2005. http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=6,971,029.PN.&OS=PN/6,971,029&RS=PN/6,971,029. ↩︎
Equinix. 2011. “IBX Data Center Physical Security | Equinix Videos.” Equinix. September 26, 2011. https://www.equinix.com/resources/videos/ibx-data-center-physical-security/. ↩︎
Durairajan, Ramakrishnan, Carol Barford, and Paul Barford. 2018. “Lights Out: Climate Change Risk to Internet Infrastructure.” In Proceedings of the Applied Networking Research Workshop, 9–15. Montreal QC Canada: ACM. ↩︎
Equinix. 2020. “SEC Form 10-K.” https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1101239/000162828020001947/0001628280-20-001947-index.htm. ↩︎
Equinix. 2018. “Corporate Sustainability Report | Equinix Green Data Centers.” Equinix. 2018. https://www.equinix.com/resources/infopapers/corporate-sustainability-report/, pp. 4, italics mine ↩︎
Equinix. 2019. “DC11 Site Specs.” Available on request from Equinix. ↩︎
US Department of Defense. 2010. “Quadrennial Defense Review Report.” US Department of Defense. https://archive.defense.gov/qdr/QDR%20as%20of%2029JAN10%201600.pdf. ↩︎
Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 23 ↩︎
Parks, Lisa. 2018. Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror. Routledge. ↩︎
Adey pp. 835 ↩︎