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The people of the cloud | Aeon

Employees at the BMIT data centre in SmartCity Malta, 22 June 2017. Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Employees at the BMIT data centre in SmartCity Malta, 22 June 2017. Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

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The people of the cloud

Hot, strenuous and unsung. There is nothing soft and fluffy about the caretaking work that enables our digital lives

by Steven Gonzalez Monserrate + BIO

Employees at the BMIT data centre in SmartCity Malta, 22 June 2017. Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

The ‘cloud’ is not an intangible monolith. It’s a messy, swelling tangle of data centres, fibre optic cables, cellular towers and networked devices that spans the globe. From the tropical megalopolis of Singapore to the remote Atacama Desert, or the glacial extremes of Antarctica, the material infrastructure of the cloud is becoming ubiquitous and expanding as more users come online and the digital divide closes. Much has been written about the ecological impact of the cloud’s ongoing expansion: its titanic electricity requirements, the staggering water footprint required to cool its equipment, the metric tonnes of electronic waste it proliferates, and the noise pollution emitted by the diesel generators, churning servers and cooling systems required to keep data centres – the heart of the cloud – operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But less has been written about those who work inside the machinery of the cloud. Though often forgotten, this community of technicians, engineers and executives is integral to the functioning of our increasingly digitised society. They are the caretakers of the digital, the wardens of our data, and the unsung heroes working tirelessly to sustain an ever-expanding array of digital objects, including our emails, cat videos, maps, non-fungible tokens, metaverse avatars, digital twins and more. The idea of digital caretakers might conjure science fiction images of empty, towering warehouses stacked with racks of automated machines. But these workers are very much flesh and blood. The silicon milieu they’re part of is as human as it is mechanical. From their vantage, the cloud is not merely an infrastructure they maintain, but a way of life, an identity, a culture of stewardship – replete with its own norms, rituals and language.

For the past six years, I have observed, shadowed and interviewed data centre professionals in the United States and Iceland as an anthropologist. During the course of my ethnographic fieldwork, I witnessed and performed many of the tasks that cloud workers engage in on a daily basis: I dined, trained, travelled and bonded with the crews that I had the privilege of joining as an eager intern, guest and social scientist. Along the way, I learned what it meant to be a steward of the cloud. I also learned that the cloud is no monolith, and that the cultures emerging among its workers are far from uniform. Data centres – as workplaces and sites of culture – vary considerably from continent to continent, node to node, or business model to business model. How they operate depends greatly on where they’re located.

Every site has its constraints, which are political (regulatory considerations), economic (total cost of operation, tax-breaks, business model), environmental (climate conditions, risk of natural disasters) and geographic (proximity to power, network, and other natural resources like water). Some companies lease server space or data to other companies, operating shared centres known as ‘colocations’ or ‘colos’. Other companies or entities, such as governments, choose to build their own data centres instead of renting out space in a colocation.

Data centres also differ based on their technological sophistication: there is a tiering system that ranks centres according to their resources, scale of operation, and level of redundancies (fail-safes) that influence their ability to provide uninterrupted service or ‘uptime’. Only about one-third of the world’s data centres resemble the oft-circulated images of Google’s idyllic facilities, glittering with colourful pipes and smiling technicians who get around their workplaces on scooters. The remaining two-thirds of data centres are far less impressive. Some are found in mouldy basements, others in the shells of decaying office buildings or abandoned military installations. Many companies still use outdated, energy-inefficient designs or do not have the resources to invest in cooling or power-optimisation solutions. As such, the workers in these facilities must rely more readily on their experiences and finely tuned instincts to keep their patches of the cloud ‘up’, however imperfectly. They do not see themselves as automatons, as mere cogs in a perfectly optimised machine, but rather as hunters, firefighters or even priests, who must make, find or invent ways to meet the impossible demand of an unremitting cloud.

While not an exhaustive account of an incredibly diverse, global industry, in what follows, I draw on interview transcripts and field notes to recreate my experiences and encounters with cloud workers (to protect their anonymity and the companies they work for, pseudonyms have been used throughout this essay). These are their stories.

August 2015. A data centre in the greater Boston metro area, Massachusetts. It is three in the morning when the alarm starts to blare. Tom’s pale face is flushed. His mane of grey-brown hair is awry from constantly running his fingers through it. I follow him as he navigates a windowless labyrinth of blinking server racks to the site of a thermal anomaly: a chrome rack of high-density ‘blade’ servers. It is warmer here than in other parts of the facility and, as computational heat envelops me, the goosebumps on my skin slightly recede. Tom is silent while his hand hovers over the server’s metallic grill-plate, where air is being suctioned up by tiny ‘muffin’ fans inside the computer to cool its hot innards. The fans are roaring.

A CommScope data centre, Boston. Courtesy CommScope/Flickr

‘You hear that?’ Tom says. ‘They’re starving.’ He gestures to the toolbox, and I hand him the proper tool for the job: a handheld metal apparatus with plunger-shaped suction cups attached to its base. He uses the tool to plunge the floor tile beneath the whining server, then lifts and removes it carefully to expose an underfloor plenum below. A burst of cool air rushes up from the cavity, displacing the earlier warmth that I had been grateful for. Data centres are not designed for human comfort. ‘Another hotspot?’ I ask. ‘Unfortunately,’ Tom nods, teeth clenched.

Like a pressurised can, the computer room air conditioner (CRAC) units pump cold air into the plenum – cold that escapes in a controlled way through tiny perforations in floor tiles that help manage the volume of air released into the server aisle. While some data centre managers use sophisticated computer models to map the airflow and thermal profiles of their facilities (computational fluid dynamics models, or CFDs), many rely on their bodily senses to make judgment calls about how much cooling is needed.

‘Hotspots are elusive critters,’ Tom says, ‘no matter what the CFDs say, they always appear somewhere, and it’s our job to put them down.’

‘Or else the data centre overheats?’

‘Yeah, and if that happens, it’s downtime.’

At that point, ‘downtime’ was a word I was already familiar with, referring to a service interruption, a state of unavailability or rupture wherein the client (potentially you) cannot access their data, stream their music, or play their game. But for Tom, ‘downtime’ was charged with foreboding – a word that meant failure, not only in a technological sense, but a personal sense. He was entrusted with the data centre’s wellbeing, and that meant preventing interruptions of any sort.

I tell Tom I had read that downtime can cost a company thousands of dollars per minute.

Hotspot hunters like Tom are still snuffing out fickle thermal pests, still listening for their distinct signature

‘Even more for some companies,’ Tom says, ‘so we have to be vigilant. We have computer models and sensors and instruments. But some of this stuff you just get a feel for. I mean, you can feel when it’s hot, can’t you? And you can hear it, too, the fans rev up.’

I listen to the ambient din of fans roaring and cannot discern the sound of overheating he is describing. My untrained ear cannot differentiate that noise from the rest of the mechanical thrumming around me. But Tom can. Conditioned by countless hours in these mechanical halls, he hears the individual parts in a symphony of beeps, tones and pulses coming from air conditioners, power distribution units, servers, smoke detectors, fire prevention systems, ungrounded cables, and heat. In this world of computational chill, heat is nuisance, an invisible enemy and index of harm, what the symbolic anthropologist Mary Douglas might have called ‘matter out of place’. Listening for heat is a skill Tom has honed, and one that he wields to ensure that the computational river of the digital continues to flow, unimpeded.

‘It gets easier the more time you spend here,’ Tom goes on. ‘There is so much going on in this place. But one of our main concerns is temperature. And the problem with temperature is that air is always on the move.’

‘So how do you measure it?’ I ask.

‘We tend to prioritise measuring temperatures rather than airflows,’ Tom said, ‘because in the end air is a fluid, which is hard to track. Imagine that this place is like an ocean. Currents of warm and cool water cycle through. We do what we can to make it work for us, but, like the ocean, air is something we can’t fully control because it’s like liquid, it seeps through the cracks!’

I nod and stare off into the glittering corridor of server racks, trying to visualise these invisible tides of air. How far could the oceanic comparison go? How else were data centres like seas?

‘Don’t worry,’ Tom says, grinning. ‘There aren’t any sharks in here, the only predator you have to worry about are the hotspots. With time and training,’ Tom says, ‘you’ll be able to find them like the rest of us.’

I recall my time sifting through animated airflow and thermal models, watching gradients of red and blue cycling in perpetual ingress and egress. A thermodynamic surf of hot and cold.

A great deal has changed since 2015, when Tom and I hunted hotspots in a raised-floor data centre, a design now largely out of fashion in the industry. By 2018, Nature was reporting that about a third of data centres were ‘hyperscale’, run primarily by the tech industry giants Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. Hyperscale facilities are state-of-the-art with ultra-efficient designs and cooling systems, many of which now claim to be carbon neutral or nearing carbon neutrality (via carbon offsetting). These mostly automated facilities patrolled by technicians on scooters, and with robotic dogs, are a far cry from Tom’s world of whack-a-mole hotspot hunting. During the course of my research, I heard data centres like Tom’s derided by some as ‘ghetto colos’ – where ‘ghetto’ is used in a pejorative sense to do with race, poverty and rundown neighbourhoods. But rather than a thing of the past, these facilities represent at least a quarter of data centres in operation today. Thermal management remains a challenge for many of these data centres. Hotspot hunters like Tom are still snuffing out fickle thermal pests, still listening for their distinct signature in the symphony of fans.

Before I worked with Tom, back when I first started studying the cloud, I was worried that conversations with workers would be thick with an inaccessible argot of data centre techno-speak. However, I quickly learned that the complexity of the systems – and the embodied and sensory dimensions of workers’ everyday experiences – required workers like Tom to resort to metaphor in their explanations to neophytes like me. Patches of excess heat became a cunning species of sentient pest (or predator). The elusive, hard-to-apprehend medium of air, which was so crucial to mitigating thermal anomalies, was described as a sea awash with convective tides and unruly surfs. For Tom, the work of a data centre manager was not so different to that of a mariner. However, those I spent time with in Iceland drew an altogether different analogue.

The Lefdal Mine Datacenter AS, near the Nordfjord in Maloy, Norway, 20 April 2021. Scandinavia, like Iceland, is an ideal location for data centres, owing to an abundance of cheap power and water. Courtesy Fredrik Solstad/Bloomberg via Getty Images

June 2016. A data centre in the Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland. Nestled in the mossy lava fields is a facility that its managers hope will usher in a new era of sustainable data storage. I arrive early so that I can navigate the gauntlet of biometric scanners and credential verification checkpoints (‘mantraps’) before my meeting. This is the way into the pearlescent halls of a data centre ‘of the future’, as Baldur calls it. With its sophisticated liquid cooling system, geothermal power outfit and empyrean aesthetic, this is the closest I have come to the cloud of the popular imagination. After touring the facility with a technician, I am escorted upstairs to meet Baldur. Through a window in his office, I glimpse the marbled mossy landscape of the Reykjanes peninsula, the jagged outlines of mountains and the azure sea looming beyond.

‘Do you like it here in Iceland?’ Baldur asks.

‘It is a beautiful country,’ I say. ‘And your facility is equally beautiful.’

‘I am glad to hear it,’ Baldur begins, ‘our hope is that Iceland will become a haven for data centres. And with our natural resources, our abundant geothermal power, we can provide the world with sustainable computation.’

I say that I’ve heard a lot about the natural resources but, as an anthropologist, I am curious about the human resources. ‘What is it about the culture of Icelanders that makes data centres a good fit for the economy here?’

Baldur smiles, pouring me a glass of water from a pitcher. ‘Perhaps we are too focused on the natural resources.’

He points out the window to the Arctic landscape before us. ‘The truth is, we are just a rock in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. We struggle to convince our clients and investors that Iceland is more than just a path to cheap power and sustainable operations. Many do not realise that we are as civilised as they are. We do have modern amenities.’

Baldur saw his job as preventing ‘fires’ from ever occurring, or snuffing them out before they spread

‘In your brochure, you mention how Icelandic culture is uniquely hospitable to the tech industry, can you tell me what you mean by that?’ I ask.

‘There are certain factors, yes, that make Icelanders special,’ he says. ‘Something in our Norse DNA makes us hardy.’

Baldur turns to face me: ‘I am an executive here, but you’ll often see me down there, checking on cables, helping to decommission assets. Because, for us, it is in our nature to want to do a little bit of everything. We are self-reliant. Job descriptions don’t mean much here, because we all work hard to accomplish what needs doing. The Icelander is in the format of a firefighter. And that, that is very good for this kind of work.’

The reference to firefighting came as something of a surprise to me. However, the more I mulled it over, the more appropriate it seemed. During my research, I had combed through countless brochures advertising rack space or vendor technology solutions for ‘mission-critical’ data storage, pitched in the language of emergency. Like Tom, Baldur saw his job as preventing ‘fires’ from ever occurring, or snuffing them out before they spread. In this way, both Tom and Baldur saw themselves as heroic, but also resourceful and quick to respond, unhampered by inflexible protocol or narrow parameters like ‘scope of work’.

Baldur pointed to a brochure I had in my hand, promoting the data centre. ‘I think sometimes when we have to collaborate with multinationals, this mentality can be something of a barrier, because we don’t know how to delegate or compartmentalise our work. But this can also be a strength. And we hope one day, this industry we are building will grow and grow, so that our young people will have a future beyond tourism.’

With its year-round cool temperatures and abundant renewable energy in the form of hydroelectric and geothermal power, industry observers in the early 2010s predicted that Iceland might soon become a data centre haven. Article after article heralded the coming of a Nordic green cloud, positing that sustainability could be achieved by harnessing the planet’s northern pole as a cooling engine, siting data centres in the Arctic to mitigate the rising carbon toll of centres elsewhere. Using a technique called ‘free cooling’ (cycling ambient air instead of refrigerating it), proponents of the cloud’s Arctic migration argued that data centres could be run with minimal ecological footprint. Today, this dream of an Icelandic data haven is ongoing, but remains hampered by connectivity issues, due to fibre optic cable capabilities and signal delays of microfractions of a second, which occur as a result of distance.

But in terms of culture, what distinguishes this instance of the cloud from others, as Baldur suggested, is the eagerness of Icelanders to learn how to do every task in the facility – the spirit of the firefighter – as opposed to the highly compartmentalised structure of facilities in the US. For Baldur, running a data centre is not merely a job, it is about laying the foundation for his community to build a future, a parallel I find in a tropical Caribbean island, 6,000 kilometres away.

October 2020. A data centre in the San Juan metropolitan area, Puerto Rico. The air is warm and rich with the smell of fritters and the nearby ocean as I enter a plain, white building. I ascend two flights of stairs, sanitise my shoes, hands and feet, and doublecheck that my N-95 masks fits tight to my face before entering this data centre in the tropics. Ricardo is waiting for me, eager to resume tutoring me on the subtleties of managing his facility. We start our day tidying up disorderly cables but, while we work, I struggle to hear what he’s saying against the cacophonic din of server fans, air conditioners and beeping power distribution units. We converse in Spanglish technobabble using gestures to bridge technical, linguistic and auditory barriers. As we chat, I learn how to properly thread and ‘seed’ ethernet cables – how to connect them from one port to another without disrupting client services.

‘Even though demand is way up during the pandemic,’ Ricardo tells me in Spanish, ‘we are up for the challenge, no major service interruptions, no cooling failures.’

‘That’s really impressive,’ I reply, ‘I can see why they’re now calling you guys essential workers.’

Ricardo nods, then hands me a bundle of elastics to retie the cables: ‘I think we have always been essential workers.’

‘During Maria,’ Ricardo says, referring to the Category 5 hurricane that hit the Caribbean in 2017, ‘we were part of the relief and recovery effort.’

‘You mean the hurricane didn’t cause you any downtime?’ I ask, recalling the storm-proofing measures, like concrete walls and bulletproof glass, that Ricardo had shown me in a previous visit.

‘Even though most of the island lost power, we had generators, and we never lost network connectivity. In the early days after the hurricane, people from all over the island came to us, and we let them in, so that they could charge their phones or use our network signal to try to locate their families. Government officials came here to set up in the call centre to coordinate supply drops and rescue operations.’

‘Our data centre was like a congregation, and we were like the priests’

I recounted my extended family’s experience in the mountainous community of nearby Guaynabo, a suburb of San Juan, and the challenges they faced keeping their kin on the US mainland updated amid the chaos of the storm.

‘For about a month,’ Ricardo began, ‘my family and I stayed here in the data centre. It was the safest place to be, and our boss let us, because it was a crisis, you know?’

That’s how I learned that a data centre could become a sanctuary. The machinery of the cloud, built to withstands disasters of all kinds, provided shelter to local communities from the hellish spiral of Maria.

‘They called her the mother of God,’ he says to me, referring to the hurricane’s biblical moniker, gripping my shoulder as tears welled in his eyes, ‘and let me tell you, I have never seen anything like it in all my life. But this community, my colleagues, we came together to help in whatever way we could.’

‘Like the churches,’ I say, thinking of the integral role that religious institutions played in connecting displaced people with supplies and medical care in the aftermath. ‘Yes,’ Ricardo chuckled. ‘Our data centre was like a congregation, and we were like the priests.’

In Puerto Rico (formerly Borikén), a Caribbean island and unincorporated US territory, data centre operators like Ricardo must contend with the hazards of tropical weather and the connectivity challenges of being on an island. For technicians, the data centre is more than just a privately owned company and service provider. It is also, under the right conditions, public infrastructure not unlike a church. As a sanctuary for many in the tumultuous aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in US history, the data centre invested in the welfare, security and prosperity of its community. For Ricardo, the data centre was also a home for him and his family.

It is hard to imagine another US context where such a public appropriation of private infrastructure would be permissible, given the extensive security measures and privacy requirements codified in client contracts. In the context of Puerto Rico, such rigid adherence to protocol was not possible. The crisis of Hurricane Maria revealed the ways that the family-oriented and community-minded culture in Puerto Rico also shaped the culture of cloud operators.

July 2021. A data centre in the Phoenix metropolitan area, Arizona. Responding to a high-priority support ticket, Martin, a senior technician, leads a junior technician and me outdoors, to an open-air lot fenced with concrete walls and networks of pipes cross-hatching the asphalt. Sunlight scorches my skin as we exit the air-conditioned building. Jacob, the junior technician, is especially attentive to my orientation as a new member of the team and points out a series of what look like shipping containers around us, arranged in rows.

‘These are modular data centres,’ he says, squinting in the harsh sunlight, ‘think of them as little self-sustaining boxes of IT equipment.’

At 47 degrees Celsius, the Arizona heat is punishing. I nod, following Martin as he enters one of those modular data centres. Pipes run in cross-cutting channels along the asphalt, abutting the modular structures. Inside, I find a strange, claustrophobic world of servers on either side of me, stacked on metallic racks. Behind them are foamy sheets that resemble honeycomb, oozing with moisture and a mélange of desert sediments. ‘It’s fucking disgusting, isn’t it?’ Martin says, before inspecting the asset tags on the server destined for decommissioning. ‘It looks like sludge,’ I say, trying to understand the mechanism before me. ‘Adiabatic cooling,’ Martin explains. ‘An evaporative method. Just like the sweat on your brow. We use less electricity this way, the water evaporates on that filter media, and carries the heat with it. It’s perfect for this climate.’

I study the lattice of the filter media, which upon closer inspection resembles some kind of packaging foam pocked with wasp’s nests. Water cools these desert data centres instead of air, reducing electricity costs for air conditioning in such high-temperature conditions. While such practices curb some of the carbon emissions associated with data centres, it seems oxymoronic to use millions of gallons of water daily to cool servers in the midst of a historic drought.

Data centre discourse is rife with masculine bravado and sexual innuendo

‘This one, right?’ Jacob, the junior tech, asks, wiping sweat from his long, blond hair as he unfastens the screws holding the server in place.

‘That’s the one,’ Martin answers, unfastening the screws on the opposite side.

‘All right,’ Jacob says, and starts to tug on the server, which seems to be stuck in the rack. I wonder if the chloride ooze has become an adhesive.

‘Use the heel of your hand,’ Martin instructs, ‘it’s not a titty. You gotta grab it like you mean it, really man-handle that thing.’

Jacob curses, and I watch as he ‘man-handles’ the server until it is loose enough, and together we lift the hefty asset onto a specialised cart for decommissioning.

‘Not too shabby, Jakey,’ Martin says, firmly smacking his shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make a man out of you in no time.’

Data centre discourse is rife with masculine bravado and sexual innuendo. One of the first things I noticed when I embarked on my investigation of the cloud’s workforce was the scarcity of individuals who don’t identify as men. From data centre to data centre, misogynistic and homophobic language was as ambient as the whir of fans in server racks. Historians of information technology tell us that computing professions were not always so dominated by men. In fact, women were once at the forefront of programming in the US and the UK, before being relegated to clerical positions, while men were elevated via a process called ‘professionalisation’, where technical skills were codified in specific ways to standardise expertise and sideline (or better manage) undesirables.

According to an industry survey, data centres are particularly hostile workplaces for women, who make up less than 10 per cent of data centre workers. While the factors behind this disparity are the subject of ongoing research, ethnographic accounts help to illuminate the qualitative factors and textures of everyday life in data centres that push women out and keep men at the centre. In the US ‘wild west’, modular data centres parked like trailers on backlots operate as a foundry for manhood. As data centres guzzle water to keep cool (even while water resources dwindle to record lows), men work to keep their microclouds afloat. Through their labour, they prove and assert their masculine identity, policing their neophytes to do the same.

In Boston, a man hunts for heat with his ears. In Iceland, a man puts out fires so that the youth of his community may have a chance at something besides bus tours. Amid the storm of the century, a man in Puerto Rico opens the doors of his fortress to the public, granting sanctuary like a pastor in a parish. In the Arizona desert, a man teaches his young pupil how to lift a server and, by extension, how to be a man. From the tropics to the Arctic, the cloud thrums. Heat blooms in the wake of computation. And it is men, not refrigeration alone, that can purge it, so that data can flow, and digital capitalism can proceed, uninterrupted.

As these tales from data centre workplaces reveal, there is more to cloud stewardship than the racking and stacking of servers, disentangling cables, swapping out floor tiles, or decommissioning old servers. Data centres are multisensory locales, where heat can be heard. They are the building blocks used to assemble dreams of communal prosperity for Icelandic youth and Puerto Rican families. They are workshops for a technical brand of masculinity. They are all these things and more but, most importantly, they are not staffed by automatons or sedentary button-pushers on spinning chairs.

On the contrary, these stories from within illustrate the ways that the cloud is as anthropogenic as it is technological, as emotional as it is logical, as physical as it is virtual, and as embodied as it is ethereal. Those behind the great digital machine, the unseen caretakers of our online worlds, are as flawed and human as the rest of us. And yet, they are also heroes of a pragmatic sort: they’re the reason why everything digital works. Next time you open your browser, or check your email, or stream music, think of them and their stories. They are the people on the other side of the cloud.

AnthropologyWorkComputing and artificial intelligence

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