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28 October 2014

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Science and Nature

Neil Lathwood of UKFast
Brain surgeon? Neil Lathwood of UKFast

Inside Manchester's brain

by Richard Turner
The internet: it’s how we chat, shop, learn, do business, bank and even find new soulmates. But how does it work? In the UK's second biggest IT city, join me on a fact-finding trip - inside Manchester’s brain.

I’ll let you into a secret: Manchester’s brain is on the second floor of a large windowless building in Hulme, just off Princess Parkway. And I’ve been inside its inner cortex.

Lawrence Jones of UKFast
UKFast MD Lawrence Jones - with a server

This is MaNOC – the Manchester Network Operating Centre - on the edge of the Science Park. It’s the UK’s second biggest internet hub and a nerve centre for the North West: almost all of Manchester’s net traffic goes through here.

If you’ve ever wondered what the internet's like behind the scenes, this is the place. And let me tell you - it hums: the combined drone of thousands of computer fans seems to resonate in your chest cavity. To be honest, it’s like no place I’ve ever been to.

"It’s noisy, it’s hot in places, it’s cold in others and on certain occasions when there are issues you’ll have a lot of hustle and bustle of staff going backwards and forwards trying to diagnose faults. So it’s probably nothing like anyone has ever experienced really."

Fast net race

Neil Lathwood is the technical director for Manchester-based UKFast - twice voted the UK's best web hosting provider - and along with the University, the biggest operator in MaNOC. And after six years, he knows this place better than anyone.

"It’s noisy. It’s hot in places, cold in others and your feet stick to the floor. And it uses more power than the Hilton"
Richard Turner inside Manchester's internet nerve centre

Effectively, he's an website plate-spinner: he’s responsible for maintaining up to 8,000 servers in the centre, hosting more than 100,000 websites and providing 24/7 connectivity to the net.

Basically, if you want a website, UKFast can put it on a server (a posh word for a computer), connect it to the net and maintain it round-the-clock.

They’ve even designed their own servers, and had them made here in Manchester specifically for the job. Racks and racks of these inch-high machines are whirring away in this carefully controlled environment.

A strange world

It certainly is a strange environment: walking past rows of hi-tech cabinets, you hit invisible walls of cold and heat: standing at the front you feel the chill of the air-con; at the back, there are blasts of hot air from computer fans keeping the servers from overheating.

The MaNOC generator building
Backup: the MaNOC generator

The other thing I noticed was my feet sticking to the floor. "Computers hate dust," explains Neil. And with the centre also being home to some of the University’s biggest supercomputers, there are sticky pads everywhere to catch the stuff.

In the world of e-commerce, time is money: Neil's job is to keep the servers up and running - or get them back up fast if they fall over. But he’s in confident mood:

"Even before we have to fix things, we’ve got a lot of a fault tolerance in our set-up,” he says. “Depending on the problem, our customers may not notice a loss of service. With regards to the internet connection, we get multiple connections through different providers. So if we lose connection to one of those providers, we automatically re-route to another one."

Power to the people?

The same is true of the power supply. A power cut is unthinkable and there are two huge backup generators in an outbuilding, ready to kick in to keep Manchester on the net. And believe me, the data centre uses a lot of power.

"I’d be surprised that the new Hilton Hotel building [in the Beetham Tower] would be using more power than this place. We will use more power than they will."

So what does the future hold? Will the city stay at the forefront of the IT revolution? Will Manchester’s brain get bigger and bigger?

"We hope so,” says Neil, "but there’s a problem. There is a considerable lack of power for these buildings and this type of infrastructure. The reason the bottom floor of this building is going to be mainly used for office space is because they can’t provide any more power until someone is willing to invest millions and millions of pounds in the power alone."

last updated: 18/08/06
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