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The Eye of the Beholder

Since we are all big fans of data centers, I think I speak for many of us when I say that, from an aesthetic standpoint, the typical compute and storage Valhalla tends to be somewhat less than pleasing to the eye. Certainly form follows function, but, in the case of data centers, function has predominated to the point that the average government building looks like the Parthenon compared to the latest home for the cloud in northern Virginia. This is not to say that every facility resembles a cross between a warehouse and a nuclear fall-out shelter, I’ve seen a few that are actually quite spiffy, but, for the most part, there is a reason that the vast majority of data centers tend to be located in areas where their number of servers exceeds that of the local population. However, based on a new initiative by the folks at Google, the era of the “picturesque” data center may be upon us.

Nothing speaks to an artist more than a blank canvas, and is there anything “blanker” than 500,000 square feet or so of concrete walls designed by muraledesign.com? I would think not. To rectify this situation, Google has selected four artists to paint murals on its facilities in Oklahoma, Belgium, Ireland and Iowa. The first interesting aspect of this exercise in data center acculturation is the recognition that the age of the “discrete” or “unacknowledged” data center is pretty much at its end. I suppose in the early days of the data center explosion it made sense for companies to deny the existence, or at least not publish the locations of, their data centers for reasons of security, but when you’ve reached the point that you’re building a million square foot colossus in the middle of a corn field or enough of them to increase the tax base of an entire state you pretty much have to admit, “who are we kidding?” Thus, the next logical step is to attempt to make these unadorned structures a little more adorned.

Nothing that I have read about this project has discussed why Google chose these four locations specifically. Although one originally may have assumed that they might have been trying to build upon each areas’ art history with the work of a Flemish master, Rubens or a Bosch—how weird would that be—in Belgium and American Gothic capturing the view of rural commuters in Council Bluffs, this does not appear to be the case as each artist has free reign in terms of their design. Although I applaud this effort to bring some couth to an industry that could use some “couthing”, one has to wonder if Google isn’t opening itself up to some unwanted backlash since, as we all know, everyone is a critic. Certainly it’s bad enough when an outage brings down someone’s cloud based application, but how do you handle complaints about the post-modern influences on the mural on the side of the building? Perhaps this may open up a whole new area of job opportunities for art history majors.

It’s still too early to see whether Google’s exercise in data center beautification will be a “one off” or the start of an industry wide trend which results in potential mural designs becoming part of the RFP process. Personally, I applaud their efforts to elevate data centers above Soviet era apartment buildings on the aesthetic scale. While beauty may reside only in the eye of the beholder, anything is better than a concrete wall.