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Rory Cellan-Jones

The town in the cloud...

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 27 Oct 08, 09:15 GMT

I'm in the United States to report on several stories, including the whole phenomenon of cloud computing. More on that on the television and radio on Tuesday, but in the meantime, let me take you to one of the places we've filmed, the town with its head in the cloud.

Ariel view of data centre, QuincyWe've been to Quincy, a remote farming town of 5,000 inhabitants in the middle of the state of Washington, where just about the only activities until recently were either planting potatoes or turning them into chips - or rather French fries. Now it's home to three giant data centres.

The biggest belongs to Microsoft, which completed its brutally ugly building on a former bean-field last year, to be followed swiftly by Yahoo and now the financial software firm Intuit. We were allowed access to Microsoft's centre - the first TV crew to get inside - and after passing through several layers of security found ourselves in one of the server rooms.

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There are 10 of them, with up to 30,000 servers in each, an almost unimaginable amount of computing power. Walking around, deafened by the roar from the cooling systems needed to keep the computers chilled, you feel you're right in the belly of the modern internet.

What are these places for? Well they currently handle everything from search queries and instant messaging to the storage of digital photos. But in the future, much of the computing power here and at similar centres will be leased out to companies wanting to engage in cloud computing - running applications on Microsoft's servers rather than their own. Consumers will also be encouraged to put more of their data into Microsoft's cloud, so that it can be accessed anywhere, from any device. It's a fashionable new business where the likes of Google and Amazon are already well entrenched.

Why Quincy? Well these places use an awful lot of energy - 50 megawatts at the Microsoft centre - and nearby on the Columbia river there's a series of dams providing relatively cheap hydro-electric power. The people we met at the Microsoft centre talked like power generation specialists rather than software types. When they kept mentioning redundancy I thought they were worried for their jobs. It turned out they were describing two back-up power systems, generators and batteries, which are supposed to ensure the place never goes offline, even if the Columbia river stops flowing.

Places like Quincy tell us a lot about the way economic power is shifting - as Detroit became Motown, so Quincy may become Dataville. Land values in the area tripled after Microsoft moved in, and one young security guard told me he was grateful for his job, the best paid work he could find round here. But let's not exaggerate the local impact - few people are needed to run these vast buildings and the computers inside them, and the numbers are going to fall as processes become ever more automated. Eventually, it may be just the security guards who are left.

It's the power these data centres give to their owners which is more likely to give pause for thought. Only a few very wealthy businesses will be able to afford a global chain of data centres (Microsoft will only say it has "more than 10 and fewer than 100") and we could all end up entrusting our data to one of these competing "clouds".

We used to think the internet was a kind of commonwealth we all owned, with the telecoms companies looking after the basic infrastructure but data free to flow wherever we wanted. But if so much of the world's computing power - and data - ends up in the hands of Microsoft, Google or Amazon, won't they end up ruling the internet?

Notice saying As I left the server room in the Quincy data centre, I noticed a big red button on the wall, with a notice above saying: "Pressing button will switch off computer room". For a moment, I was tempted...

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