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UPS, I Did It Again: Bits Versus Atoms

Lest you think that the Internet is solely a medium of light beams and electricity, this illustrated tale should remind you that the Internet is full of heavy machinery (and electricity), too.

Our long-time co-location facility, digital.forest – the folks that house our servers and provide juice, cooling, and connectivity – needed to add additional capacity for their power backup. I’m used to seeing uninterruptible power supplies (UPSes) that are the size of a shoebox or a little larger. They contain batteries or sometimes flywheels that feed out power as needed.

UPSes are part of the conditioning process in making sure that power is nice and clean, too, with spikes and drops shaved off. The largest one I ever owned could supply about 1,400 watts, running a set of servers for tens of minutes in the event of a power drop or outage; it weighed maybe 40 or 50 pounds. (Backing up the UPS units at digital.forest is a diesel generator the size of several tanks that takes over before the battery power runs out.)

digital.forest’s new multi-unit UPS system weighs a total of 11,500 pounds, or nearly six standard tons, and can provide 180,000 watts of power. That size and weight prompted the company’s staff first to construct a wood-frame model to make sure they had clearance within their data center. Then, in consultation with their building’s owners, one of the world’s largest data center builders, the technicians decided that even though the units could slide through the building, it was unclear whether certain paths along the way were engineered to handle that much point weight.

Why not rip open the roof, instead? (That’s what the Apple Store thieves thought in a nearby part of Seattle recently, too.) To quote They Might Be Giants, “They’ll need a crane, they’ll need a crane.” Some peeling off of the roof, a new cap, a couple forklifts, and a crane, and the UPSes settled into place.

It’s easy to forget that the Internet relies heavily not just on ethereal bits of data, but also on loads of atoms.

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