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The Server Farm as a Plot Device

Novelist Michael Connelly features a colocation center in his new mystery thriller, The Scarecrow, which this week is number 3 on The New York Times' Bestseller list.

the-scarecrowWhat really happens inside a "server farm"? The advanced technology and security seen in modern data centers has stirred the imagination of many in the media and entertainment industry over the years. That includes novelist Michael Connelly, who features a colocation center in his new mystery thriller The Scarecrow, which this week is number 3 on The New York Times' Bestseller list.

And what does Connelly imagine lurking within the server racks? A serial killer. Connelly's novel has the villainous title character Wesley Carver working as chief technology officer of a secretive colo facility known as "The Farm." You can read an excerpt on Connelly's web site.

How does a server farm become a plot device in a murder novel? Connelly talks about his process in an email interview with DCK:

Data Center Knowedge: What led you to choose a colocation center as the workplace for Wesley Carver?

Michael Connelly: I have an internet researcher who is sort of on call for me. I send him emails all the time with questions large and small. When he is not chasing down answers for me he is out there looking for interesting things for me to read or look at. I usually give him parameters for what I am thinking about.

In this case, I was interested in how law firms back up all the sensitive data in their files. He went to work on this and told me about the rise of the business of digital colocation. He sent me a link to a video tour of a colocation center. I was impressed by all the security and hardware, how the center was located underground and how it was protected from forces of nature as well as electronic intrusion. It was a fortress and these sort of things always interest me because it always comes down to people, who you have inside the fortress is the most important thing.

DCK: What kind of research did you undertake to familiarize yourself with data center facilities?

Connelly: Primarily, my research was done on the internet. In a way, I thought if I was going to write about a killer who uses the internet then I should know what's out there on the internet. Because this is a competitive industry there is a lot out there. I took video tours of data center facilities from Iowa to Australia. I also had my researcher feeding me stuff and talking to IT people when I had questions he couldn't answer through research on the internet.

DCK: Have you had any feedback from IT or data center professionals about the book, and the notion of a colo center CTO as a serial killer?

Connelly: Not yet. But the truth is the colo center stuff is window dressing. The story is about this character and how he manipulates and uses the tools at his disposal. I have to assume that people in this business will not be jumping for joy about me sticking a killer in their midst, but the book is full of metaphors about technology and its advances and pitfalls. That's where the story is. As I said before it still seems to always come down to people and that won't change, I don't think, as we make our technological advances. You can build a better mouse trap but if the guy who places the trap and baits it has got a flaw, then the advancement is at risk.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story's main protagonist is a reporter who has just been laid off by the LA Times. I worked in newsrooms for years and have spent a lot of time inside data centers, and thus have some experience with the primary settings in The Scarecrow. Connelly does a first-rate job capturing the atmosphere and culture of a metro newsroom, and fares better than most non-insiders in portraying a data center. Most of the technology-driven plot devices - which involve VESDA, fire suppression systems and man traps - are plausible for those in "I'm reading a novel" mode. Of course, the colo center in question is staffed by several murderous psychopaths, so we hope you don't recognize your boss or co-workers among Connelly's characters.

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