Local Area Network
A shipping container-sized box occupies the middle of room 11A. Shielded in the dark steel mesh of the cabinet’s covers, the sight of flashing green LEDs and bright yellow cables permeates through. It is comprised of 36 individual cabinets, aligned adjacently to form two rows which face each other. Each one houses racks of ethernet switches and ports, fibre optic gateways, servers and other devices. Wires bundled overhead in cages drop down to feed the racks and flow to the rear of the devices where they loop and splinter into individual ports. The top cover between the rows of cabinets is formed of a Correx ceiling and is bookended by two sliding doors so that the data centre becomes an enclosed unit. Around the unit is the paraphernalia of network maintenance: cables, ladders and work desks, computer monitors on storage shelves. Notices, matting, kick-stools and tools are dotted around the room suggesting its regular maintenance. The sound of whirring fans from servers and air-conditioning is constantly in the background. A hazard sticker displaying an image of ear-protectors states Warning this area may have noise levels between 80 and 85 db(A).
The data centre is cold; conditions that keep the hive of devices from overheating. One cabinet door is open, revealing loops of yellow fibreoptic wires. Microscopically thin glass tubes transporting pulses of light insulated in a thin veil of plastic. Within this small component is two disparate manufacturing practices: glass and plastics. Materials sourced from different locations in different parts of the world. Extracted from deep in the earth. Each cable is tagged and labelled with an individual code. One reads MM62/0013. This cable is plugged into a blue port on the 2nd row of 24 ports along the rack. Of the 64 racks, around three quarters of these ports are occupied with a similar fibreoptic input. Next to each one, an accompanying blue LED blinks intermittently suggesting sporadic activity within.
The Citrix NetScaler unit ‘half-failed’ earlier in the day. It is explained to me that occasionally devices can be powered on but not functioning properly. If the unit had gone offline completely, there is a back-up unit which would kick-in. However, the back-up didn’t start and the network was not responding, which is why, as I walk into the IT Office, three technicians are gathered around a screen. Code is scrolling down it, white on black. One member of the team is hunched over, pointing to a particular area of the code and asking if a highlighted section has been the root cause of the error. Another member, sitting down and peering closer, is shaking his head, stating that nothing looks abnormal in the code as it passes by. The university’s network has been down for an hour. My (un)timely visit to tour the university’s internet infrastructure allows me to glimpse the network error and its real-world effects. Although I didn’t understand the unit’s full function, this was a small glimpse into the complex organism that is an institution’s network. This error had exposed a single object’s function within a larger networked entity. It demonstrates one link removed from a chain, highlighting our reliance on the materiality of objects that comprise the network. This network consists of a rich assortment of minerals and rare metals which, assembled into devices, are secreted in a number of locations mostly unknown to the students, staff and visitors reliant upon them. Not only do we rarely understand how the network works, we seldom know the network’s location.
The data centre is hidden not 50 metres from the Glass Tank exhibition space, yet is scarcely noticeable behind an unassuming door labelled ‘Authorised Staff Only’. I take photos on my phone around the perimeter of the data centre itself, then go down the walkway in-between the racks to take more. As I take the photos, a small, circulating icon in the top left of the phone indicates that it is communicating with the network. The photos are being uploaded to cloud-storage. It is pointed out to me where the fibre optic cables connect to the external network. The cables are surprisingly thin and low-key. They connect the data centre with the outside world, the larger internet infrastructure. Three curved, concentric bars are illuminated on the LED screen of my phone. This symbol, at the top left of my screen, indicates that I am connected to the University’s Wi-Fi. I check back through the images I’ve taken. A small white tick indicates the image has been stored to the cloud. The data has been sent from the device to the nearest router along cables and has passed through the data centre already. The indication of its ‘arrival’ has also been transferred back through this system. From the Data Centre, the path of the ethernet cables lead to other parts of the building where more objects are connected, forming the nodes of network organism that lives within the institution.
Outside the Data Centre, the objects integral to the network are concealed within inconspicuous architectural features. A panel in the ceiling of the corridor conceals a cylindrical bundle of purple ethernet cables running from the data centre to the nearby comms room. Beneath the feet of passing students are heavily-insulated power cables, matt black and embellished with the scrapes from installation, flowing into a small storage cubicle next to the elevator. Here, it stretches between floors, alongside pipes and through ducts up to the next level. Comms rooms, service access points, fibreoptic access and routers are all dotted around the building. In one room, next to an office, is a large rack of servers suppling the nearby offices and lecture theatres. Approximately a hundred white ethernet cables are plugged into separate ports located in the racks. The identical cables drop to the floor and gather at the bottom of the rack unit. They are grouped into 2 main branches with cable ties and stretch up the adjacent wall toward the cabling ducts just below the ceiling. Here they split, one joining another cluster of purple cables (and one red cable) which feed through the wall behind the racks. The other branch follows the ducting to the opposite wall in the direction of the data centre.
I squat down and take photos in an arc around the unit, knowing as I do so that the data of the images will pass through the cables as it travels through the network. Pulses of varying voltages electrify the copper entwinned within the cable thousands of times a second. A series of binary decisions becomes embedded within the metal, changing its electrical structure for micro-seconds at a time. My phone displays the Wi-Fi symbol. The pictures are saved but not on the device. I don’t know where they end up. Beside the rack, on the wall, is a more incongruous set of objects including old, bare wires and corroded patching bays. These objects make up what is referred to as the ‘legacy’ network; remnants of the previous iterations of the network infrastructure, which are all discontinued. Once fundamental to the institution’s function, the objects are now destined for scrap or landfill. Alongside and underneath the redundant, wall-mounted comms unit are more ‘retired’ devices awaiting recycling and disposal. Piles of broken or outdated servers, monitors and circuitry are gathered on the floor and on shelving units. Devices that are covered with scuffs and decay are the casualties of network demands. Their perished textures, faded and worn in areas of use, are the signs that these are the tarnished and fatigued components of ongoing organism. Perhaps these units contain the remnants of users’ images, fragments of video, memes and status updates laying stagnant and awaiting erasure. They await WEEE processing to remove data and recycling of the rare earth materials contained within. Like my images, I don’t know where these objects will end up. I don’t even know which components and minerals will get separated from which. Much like the data, once it leaves and enters the network, it spreads and dissipates its materiality across the world.
Mobile data masts
The mobile phone masts located on top of the Abercrombie Building are the property of O2, Thames Valley Police and Vodaphone. These organisations rent the position on top of the university’s tallest building in order to supply the surrounding area with the greatest coverage possible. Three masts located in different corners of the roof, comprised of metal poles and panelling, are assembled in varying configurations One has white/grey rectangular panels mounted vertically. Scaffolding holds the panels above the roof’s periphery and the plates sit adjacent to each other facing East. Thick black trunking carries cables from each panel, under the walkway and into the junction boxes close to the elevator.
Another panel facing West towards the city centre comprises a dish (much like a commercial satellite dish) and a small, flat panel paired together, which is held aloft above the air-conditioning ventilation. Cabling runs into a large cabin structure located on the roof. On the side of the cabin is a vent, whirring constantly, and a blinking light that suggests activity inside. More black cabling pours out of a box on the side of the cabin through the steel grate walkway. Vents and fans emit a static drone punctuated by gusts of wind whistling past scaffolding. I photograph the cell masts from several angles. The corner of my phone screen shows four bars of signal and an icon that reads “4G”. Rubber-matting designates paths around the antennae that lead to the roof’s perimeter. I take a series of photos of the antenna, moving along the walkways and up the steps towards the towers themselves. Several other antennas are visible from this location in the neighbouring area: a large tower at the Churchill Hospital, the mobile cell towers on a building behind the Shell garage on Osler Road and the large antenna on Shotover Hill.
It’s surprisingly common for network masts to be installed on top of existing buildings. In the immediate area, they are situated on top of a water tower, a fire station and a secondary school. In situations where they cannot be placed atop existing structures they are furtively disguised as other urban regalia on the ground, crafted to look like a lamp post, a flag pole, and some even dressed up to look like trees. On Olser Road, 200m east of the Abercrombie building, a storage facility is located behind a petrol station that has four masts perched on the corners of its flat roof. “This area is protected by CCTV” reads a sign located at the outskirts of the building’s driveway. The building is an unremarkable, red brick warehouse with the top floor clad in more modern, corrugated panelling and square plastic guttering. Above the gutter are rails and galvanized steel trim. There are 4 grey/white masts that blend in with the surrounding suburban backdrop and with the overcast sky. I take some photos of the mast from the driveway and from the view on Osler Road. Signal is good.
On mastdata.com it lists that Vodafone, 3, O2 and T-Mobile each have a mast here. My phone must be connected to one of them. This site becomes a point by which most phone users in East Oxford (and surrounding areas) are connected to. The photos I take are quickly uploaded to the cloud. The white progress wheel rotates around steadily to indicate the transfer of data. Several megabytes-a-second of coded waves are transported via radio signals up to the towers and are carried on further by fibreoptic link.