Pay No Attention to the Server Behind the Curtain

Computer servers, hidden scaled complexity that works.


Servers? Desktops? They’re both computers, right? Well, yes, in the same sense that an elephant and a mouse are both mammals.

You’re familiar with a desktop or a laptop computer. What you may not know is there are uncounted ranks and ranks of computer servers behind the scenes providing you with, well, services. Servers are the things you reach over the network when you’re browsing to a web site or looking at a map online or sending an email. To even get to these servers, you unknowingly use other servers just to convert something like “” into a network address that other servers can use to route your request to the right server. There’s this whole infrastructure of servers upon servers upon servers that all manage to work together to get you where you want to go on the internet.

There’s not just one server waiting for you to contact it over the internet, either. For example,  one estimate from 2012 stated Facebook had 180,000 servers. That’s 180,000 computers working together just to do Facebook things for you and everyone else. That estimate is not counting all of the other servers working for you between Facebook and your desktop computer. When I think of it, I find myself astonished at how well our internet ecosystem actually works.

I can speak from experience about one server building that supplied high-performance computing services to a University. They had 5,500 servers on the middle floor of a three story building. The bottom floor was a refrigerated air intake for the entire middle floor, the top floor was the hot air exhaust from the entire middle floor. What really blew me away was that the air refrigeration units and internal building fans had not one, but two backup electrical generators. That seemed excessively paranoid until I was told that if the cold air stopped being supplied to the middle floor with its 5,500 servers for longer than 30 seconds, the microprocessors in all of these servers would be destroyed from their own waste heat. Just turning off all 5,500 servers immediately would not work since all of the existing heat has to go somewhere. Ohhhh. Maybe add a third backup electrical generator?

So, yes, servers on the internet are computers like your desktop computer, but on a scale difficult to fully grasp. And…hidden behind the curtain.

Author: David Pointer

Pragmatic programmer. Consilient alchemist. Pro geek. Serial hobbyist. Miniature tabletop gamer.

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