If you’ve ever gone by McCormick Place by 350 E. Cerkmak, chances are that you’ve probably never noticed a six story brick building with relief art decorating its thick walls. Welcome to the Chicago Data Center, the veritable Fort Knox of IT in the Midwest, and the largest data center in the world.
What is the Chicago Data Center? Think of all of the fiber optic cables that connect the Internet all over the country and the Chicago Data Center is where everything intersects all in one building for all of the Internet in the Midwest. There are smaller data centers in the outlying suburbs but they play Palwaukee or DuPage to Chicago’s O’Hare.
Due to the value of the data stored here and the actual hardware, you can’t just walk into the Chicago Data Center. Nearly every major company with data going through the Midwest likely has servers transmitting data all over the country here. High frequency traders move their servers to be that much closer to downtown to reduce latency by a couple of milliseconds that makes a big difference. As such, armed guards will be at the front door ready to sign you in. Nearly every inch of the Chicago Data Center has cameras and there are dozens of security monitors watching your every move.
Once in the Data Center, I left my camera in the car and we passed through two security checkpoints and had to sign in at each one. We then had to go through a man trap which basically once you scan you punch in the pass code and scan your hand, you are moved to another room and have to wait for one door to close before you can scan your hand and punch in your code again.
After this we entered an area that looked like the front desk of any office and we shuffled off onto a stairwell and into a hallway. In the hallway the only light was blue track lights above and no other light save that coming from the servers locked in cages all over the place. If you didn’t have a map and never had been there you’d probably end up running in circles without ever finding what you were looking for. Servers the size of refrigerators blinked in the background in the darkness and the path was lit with blue lights making it kind of looking like a scene out of Star Trek.
Eventually we reached the proper cage and scanned through again to reach the servers my friend had to work on. Each cage can cost $100,000 a year to rent depending on size and comes loaded with fiber optic cables, telephone lines, and power lines tied up in neat bundles. The noise coming from the Data Center can be a bit overwhelming but after awhile you get used to it.
Inside the cage there were giant servers blasting heat or cold air depending on what you were standing next to. Giant racks holding e-mail servers, voicemail servers, web traffic, simulated web attacks, firewalls, and any other servers you might need. My friend’s coworker was installing some piece of equipment and wires were sticking out all over the place. The racks were neat pieces of equipment, able to fit large and small servers and each piece had power and network cables running in and out. I got a quick tutorial on the various servers, where their backups were, rundown of various manufacturers, and how things move in and out of the data center.
The amount of power needed to keep the data center running has got to be astronomical. Power cables flow into every cage and we really were in the middle of the biggest internet hub out in the Midwest. If you’ve ever seen Fight Club you’ll recall that they blow up all of the buildings to destroy bank records and reset everyone to zero. Even though we were in the middle of it all, even if terrorists did blow up the data center there are backups all over the country. Part Star Trek, part myth, the Chicago Data Center was 100% techgeek and I am glad my oldest friend that I’ve known since kindergarten gave me a chance to check it out!