Once in a while—not quite often enough to be a crisis, but just often enough to be a trope—people in the United States will freak out because a huge number of highly popular websites and services have suddenly gone down. For an interminable period of torture (usually about 1-3 hours, tops) there is no Instagram to browse, no Tinder to swipe, no Github to push to, no Netflix to And Chill.
When this happens, it usually means that Amazon Web Services is having a technical problem, most likely in their US-East region. What that actually means is that something is broken in northern Virginia. Of all the places where Amazon operates data centers, northern Virginia is one of the most significant, in part because it’s where AWS first set up shop in 2006. It seemed appropriate that this vision quest to see The Cloud across America which began at the ostensible birthplace of the Internet should end at the place that’s often to blame when large parts of the U.S. Internet dies.
Northern Virginia is a pretty convenient place to start a cloud-services business: for reasons we’ll get into later, it’s a central region for Internet backbone. For the notoriously economical and utilitarian Amazon, this meant that it could quickly set up shop with minimal overhead in the area, leasing or buying older data centers rather than building new ones from scratch.
The ease with which AWS was able to get off the ground by leasing colocation space in northern Virginia in 2006 is the same reason that US-East is the most fragile molecule of the AWS cloud: it’s old, and it’s running on old equipment in old buildings.
Or, that’s what one might conclude from spending a day driving around looking for and at these data centers. When I contacted AWS to ask specific questions about the data-center region, how they ended up there, and the process of deciding between building data centers from scratch versus leasing existing ones, they declined to comment.
Unlike Google and Facebook, AWS doesn’t aggressively brand or call attention to their data centers. They absolutely don’t give tours, and their website offers only rough approximations of the locations of their data centers, which are divided into “regions.” Within a region lies at minimum two “availability zones” and within the availability zones there are a handful of data centers.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to find the entirety of AWS’ northern Virginia footprint, but I could probably find bits and pieces of it. My itinerary was a slightly haphazard one, based on looking for anything tied to Vadata, Inc., Amazon’s subsidiary company for all things data-center-oriented.
Google’s web crawlers don’t particularly care about AWS’ preference of staying below the radar, and searching for Vadata, Inc. sometimes pulls up addresses that probably first appeared on some deeply buried municipal paperwork and were added to Google Maps by a robot. It’s also not too hard to go straight to those original municipal documents with addresses and other cool information, like fines from utility companies and documentation of tax arrangements made specifically for AWS. (Pro tip for the rookie data-center mapper: if you’re looking for the data centers of other major companies, Foursquare check-ins are also a surprisingly rich resource). My weird hack research methods returned a handful of Vadata addresses scattered throughout the area: Ashburn, Sterling, Haymarket, Manassas, Chantilly.
Before I knew northern Virginia as the heart of the Internet, I knew it as spook country—that is, home to a constellation of intelligence agencies and defense contractors. While I didn’t plan my itinerary around the military-industrial complex, its many outposts remained in the back of my mind and frequently on the horizon—and, at least once during the drive, I just stumbled upon them. After missing an exit in McLean, I made a U-turn in a generically designed but improbably well-guarded office-park entrance that I later found out was the headquarters of the Office of the Directorate for National Intelligence.
The fact that northern Virginia is home to major intelligence operations and to major nodes of network infrastructure isn’t exactly a sign of government conspiracy so much as a confluence of histories (best documented by Paul Ceruzzi in his criminally under-read history Internet Alley: High Technology In Tysons Corner, 1945-2005). To explain why a region surrounded mostly by farmland and a scattering of American Civil War monuments is a central point of Internet infrastructure, we have to go back to where a lot of significant moments in Internet history take place: the Cold War.