Machine Rooms

I work for a very large IT company. In dark, underground rooms beneath the ground, we have machine rooms. Different rooms contain computers for different purposes. One area might contain a few hundred web servers. Another room has machines used for internal purposes, like software development or testing. We don’t call it a server room – because it’s not just servers in there. It’s a machine room, you see?

The first visit I ever made left me speechless. I stood still, stunned, turning slowly round in amazement. A machine room is a wine cellar for computing power, and has something for all the senses:

The sight of thousands of computers is something to behold. Millions and millions of dollars worth of computing power, laid out in front of me. Some rack mounted, some piled high on top of each other, some perching on the floor, not yet set up. A few monitors and terminals act as windows to the big boxen. Although well ordered, tidy symmetrical shelves can look impressive, I prefer the slightly more relaxed feel of an informally laid-out machine room.

The sound. A machine room produces dozens of different layers of sounds. Firstly, there is silence. No ringing telephones, nobody talking. Next, and most obviously, there is the loud roar of air conditioning. Under the air con are the subtle hums of a thousand fans. Some are bigger then others, and each is slightly different in pitch and volume. Each is individually indistinguishable; you only notice them if you’re really listening. Apparently, one of the best things a friend of mine ever experienced was an emergency power-down in a big machine room.

10,000 fans all slowing to a stop. Silence ringing in your ears…

The smell could exist no-where else. It smells like power, like the future. The air conditioning adds its smell, and a million miles of circuit fills the air with what I can only describe as the smell of computing.

Finally, I love the secret danger of being in a machine room. I always have the morbid fear that a fire might break out near the door, and the room fill with lethal halon. Halon, in my instinctive ‘crocodile’ brain, has connotations as deadly as cyanide. Although the halon they use today is no longer poisonous, asphyxiation is still a risk.