From the outside, NY4 doesn’t look like much. Its ambling, concrete façade is dotted with tinted windows, not unlike many industrial buildings here in Secaucus, N.J. But that’s where the similarities end. Inside, the lobby is empty except for a wall-mounted telephone that dials straight to a security desk. If—and only if—you have an appointment, they’ll let you through the doors and into a waiting room tinged with a red glow. A glass wall separates you from two security guards studying a wall of five video monitors, each showing multiple surveillance feeds.

It was here in this interstitial space that I met a tall man with white curly hair. Michael Poleshuk is the senior director of Northeast data center operations for Equinix, a company that owns and operates data centers across the country, including this one. I apologize to him for being nearly an hour late, explaining that I hadn’t expected the journey from Brooklyn to take two hours in rush hour. “I knew it would,” he says with a laugh, as he escorts me through the third and final door.

Walking into the heart of NY4 is like entering the future—or the guts of a megascale computer. The space is vast: 343,000 square feet, the size of nearly six football fields. Its core is packed with machines, and offices line its perimeter. We make our way down a long, straight corridor, illuminated by blue LEDs—Equinix’s trademark, Poleshuk says—and flanked by glass doors that allow us to see into the server cages.

The servers are dizzying arrays of flashing blue and green diodes. Each one releases a mess of rainbow-colored spaghetti; the wires miraculously sort themselves into bundles onto cable trays above us. Inside the cages, the roar of fans, hard drives, and air conditioners is deafening. Noting my discomfort, Poleshuk says with another laugh, “It’s not a pleasant place to be.”

Data Surge
Last year, the world processed 9.57 zettabytes of information. That’s 9.57 million million gigabytes. Yes, that’s million million. By 2015, “that number is expected to quadruple,” says Cullen Bash, the director of the Sustainable Ecosystems Research Group at Hewlett-Packard (HP), based in Palo Alto, Calif. Processing this data—banking transactions, search queries, cloud computing—requires a tremendous amount of space, power, and design innovation. The architects who can make these data-crunching powerhouses energy efficient are key to the success of the modern data industry.

Around the world, more than 13,000 large data centers are up and running, according to market research firm IDC in a 2011 USA Today article; about 7,000 are located in the United States. Data centers generally fall into one of two categories: colocation or enterprise. A colocation center, such as NY4, hosts servers from different companies—banks, Internet startups, small businesses—that rent space for their servers and trust that the facility will provide uninterrupted power and connectivity. Enterprise centers, meanwhile, are run by a single entity, such as Yahoo, Facebook, and Google, for its own use.

Poleshuk knows his way through NY4 as though it’s his own home. But he doesn’t know what the servers are processing. And he doesn’t want to, he says. “That’s not our business.” His business is keeping the facility online. Upon discovering that one biometric handprint reader out of dozens was malfunctioning, he hails someone to fix it immediately. As we continue down the spotless corridors, he stops in mid-sentence to fix a crooked lock, and kicks aside stray wires that have meandered out of place.