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If you’re looking for the beating heart of the digital age — a physical location where the scope, grandeur, and geekiness of the kingdom of bits become manifest—you could do a lot worse than Lenoir, North Carolina. This rural city of 18,000 was once rife with furniture factories. Now it’s the home of a Google data center.
Engineering prowess famously catapulted the 14-year-old search giant into its place as one of the world’s most successful, influential, and frighteningly powerful companies. Its constantly refined search algorithm changed the way we all access and even think about information. Its equally complex ad-auction platform is a perpetual money-minting machine. But other, less well-known engineering and strategic breakthroughs are arguably just as crucial to Google’s success: its ability to build, organize, and operate a huge network of servers and fiber-optic cables with an efficiency and speed that rocks physics on its heels. Google has spread its infrastructure across a global archipelago of massive buildings—a dozen or so information palaces in locales as diverse as Council Bluffs, Iowa; St. Ghislain, Belgium; and soon Hong Kong and Singapore—where an unspecified but huge number of machines process and deliver the continuing chronicle of human experience.
This is what makes Google Google: its physical network, its thousands of fiber miles, and those many thousands of servers that, in aggregate, add up to the mother of all clouds. This multibillion-dollar infrastructure allows the company to index 20 billion web pages a day. To handle more than 3 billion daily search queries. To conduct millions of ad auctions in real time. To offer free email storage to 425 million Gmail users. To zip millions of YouTube videos to users every day. To deliver search results before the user has finished typing the query. In the near future, when Google releases the wearable computing platform called Glass, this infrastructure will power its visual search results.
The problem for would-be bards attempting to sing of these data centers has been that, because Google sees its network as the ultimate competitive advantage, only critical employees have been permitted even a peek inside, a prohibition that has most certainly included bards. Until now.