Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Framing Brown's Network Power: A Visit to the Bowels of Wilson Hall

We approached Wilson Hall from the North end of the Main Green, the heart of Brown University campus. It's first-floor rooms are some of the most popular meeting spaces for student organizations (we are in fact composing this very blog post in Wilson 106), and there is a constant flow of student activity through and around the building. Little do they know, this flow is invisibly echoed by the exponentially faster and broader flow of information through and around a locked room in its rarely-visited basement. In sharp contrast to the straightforward numbering system employed on the upper floors, the ring of locked doors here are unmarked.

One of these rooms is home to most if not all of Brown IT's internet routing infrastructure, its locked door overseen by two looming security cameras. Every bit of networked data coming into or out of Brown passes through the routers and switches in this room. The door boasts a frosted glass viewing pane, a few small scratches offering the only glimpse into an otherwise totally obscured interior.

After our initial attempts to gain access met with predictable failure, we noticed a common floor plan affixed to the wall. A closer inspection revealed that the rooms have numbers, and names, after all! The room we were after, we learned, was the Frame Room, Wilson 004.

That funny little Brown University logo sticker caught our eyes - peeling it back, we found that it is covering the traditional "You Are Here" indicator. Along with the missing/replaced room numbers, this bizarre cover-up served to render this already mysterious place even more inscrutable.

Wandering off to the left, towards rooms the map labeled 007 and 007A, we discovered a surreal graveyard for the Brown's dead telephones.

In a strange contrast to the hypersecurity around the Frame Room, 007A was unlocked. Inside, we found a stockpile of huge spools of Cat-5 (ethernet) cable, the control panel for the Frame room's alarm system, and, most alarmingly, the huge, "high voltage" air conditioning units necessary to keep the routers in the Frame Room up and running. If someone were to take a hammer to one of these, it's more than likely that Brown's internet architecture would be severely disabled.

After fully exploring the 007s, we walked back out to the landing. After a moment, the door we had just left began to open, and a middle-aged man stepped through.

"What can I do for you?"

"Oh, we're just looking around. Do you need to get through?"

He did. As he opened the door, we asked if we might come inside with him and take a peek around. His response was immediate:

"This is a high security area."

The secret couldn't remain completely hidden, though - as Paglen reminds us, secrets are bound to fail due to the fact that they exist in space. Indeed, the man we encountered could not get in without opening the door and affording us this forbidden glimpse of the Frame Room.

Or was it, as an anonymous commentator on the brick outer wall of the Frame Room concluded, all a dream?

- Emily Fishman, Sean Feiner, and Jake Eakle

1 comment:

Joey Brunelle said...

Wow. That's pretty incredible. Who knew that all that was underneath Wilson while we were doing all manner of things in the floors above.

Also, high-security in Brown-speak means "don't get caught, the security is only as high as we are lazy."