BBC TwoNewsnight
Page last updated at 19:06 GMT, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Inside Silicon Valley

Global warming by computer

Ming Tsang, Newsnight producer, gets to realise his fantasies, exploring the back rooms of global computer companies in California.

Old computer
Enough dials and spools to keep even a Hollywood director happy

No science fiction movie or spy thriller from the 1960's would have been complete without a visit to the computer room.

A cathedral-like space stuffed full with what looked like oversized 5 foot high tape players, with giant foot-wide reel to reel tapes.

As a film buff, I have always wanted to visit a room like this.

A sort of living set, which would not only look good but, hopefully, would make a lot of computer-like pinging noises too! This summer, I got my chance.

IBM chic

At IBM, my hopes were raised when I passed a photograph of the room we were to visit.

IBM computer room in 1980
IBM circa 1980

The size of three American football fields, it was stuffed with all the right dials, switches, teletype printers, and spinning tape machines.

It looked just the kind of place James Bond's gadget genius "Q" would have used to work out how to detect Russian subs sneaking into the English Channel during the Cuban missile crisis.

Or perhaps mission control for the first trip to the moon.

In fact the whole IBM building was built in this same space-age style, boxy, silver and totally futuristic, with streamlined analogue clocks telling time around the globe and black low-cut swivel chairs straight out of the film 2001.

It was all charmingly retro. The only movie-style period detail missing were the men walking around smoking camel cigarettes, with glamorous women in their wake, holding files.

Sadly, things have changed a lot since the photograph was taken back in 1980. Some for the better.

Cisco headquarters
Cisco specialises in routers and switches that direct internet traffic

These days the glamorous women are often in charge for a start, and smoking's been banned (not that you were ever really allowed to smoke in the computer room).

But disappointingly, though it all looks very efficient now, none of the computers have spinning wheels or any moving parts.

They're tucked away inside slick, black cabinets and nothing goes ... Ping!

This server room felt like a giant Swedish furniture shop, specialising in wardrobes, and a noisy shop at that, with all the air conditioning units humming away.

And it is these air conditioning systems that are causing half of the problems.

Cisco's naked wiring

Down the road at Cisco's research labs that's one of the things they're working on.

Google's dinosaur sculpture
At Google security is a priority

We found servers stripped bare of their wardrobe-like casings. Miles after mile of naked wiring, circuits and dongles exposed… it was enough to make a robot blush.

This sounded less like a computer room and more like a car factory.

And the hellishly complicated wiring made it look like Dante's hi-fi shop, and that wasn't its only link to hell.

According to Cisco's Green Tsar, a typical server rack generates the same amount of heat as three domestic ovens on full power.

And there are thousands of racks in each data centre.

He told us that if the air conditioning was turned off, the cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit (17C) temperature of the room would double to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49C) in a few minutes.

Google's wackiness

Then to Google, which didn't disappoint, if only in its sheer wackiness.

Google's dinosaur sculpture
Google's dinosaur sculpture

Lots of sculpted greenery with a lovely life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex next to the veggie patch.

Just across the way from the swimming treadmill was the company reception, with a model of the world's only private manned spacecraft, SpaceShip One (life-sized of course), hanging overhead.

And then there was the free food, nay, free gourmet food, everywhere we went.

Management here encourages the workers, or "Googlers", to do their own thing in their spare time.

There are electric cars for Googlers to borrow, and the security guards use electric Segway-style carts to get around.

With their blue uniforms and coloured helmets they look like smurfs on hobby horses. And all this is powered by solar panels on the roof. What could be better?

Well the solar panels generate only a fraction of the energy that Google uses, and there are signs everywhere warning of secrecy.

The funny-looking security guards are also everywhere, and we found out for ourselves that the comedy carts they use could easily out-accelerate our car, and are apparently efficient at catching intruders.

We also heard the same joke over and over again - employees warning each other not to tell us anything; and just in case you don't get it, there are signs all around the campus telling people not to cross certain lines, or go into certain buildings - for security reasons.

Of course, all companies protect themselves from industrial espionage (try taking a few snapshots in a Formula One pit lane and see how long it is before they escort you out). But in friendly, happy Google it seemed somehow out of place.

In fact, after a few hours we began to feel we'd strayed into a brightly-coloured version of one of those closed science towns you used to read about in Soviet Russia, where everybody is signed up to the same project for the greater glory of the state.

Or perhaps it was more like the Village in the cult TV series "The Prisoner".

And just like those secret towns and villages, it was hard to work out what everybody was up to…all those thousands of Googlers, bussed into the giant out-of-town Googleplex campus, in blacked-out coaches with secure wifi connections.

Does Google need all this effort, money and brainpower just to develop ways to make online searches faster, more accurate and profitable? It's another world.


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