Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Co-Lo, Do

cory_brain_mold_small.jpg I'm not ashamed to admit that I harbor unnatural feelings towards my servers. If programming and writing are both expressions of one's personality, then the content and systems on a server are a piece of you. Where it gets complicated is when you can transplant the ticking heart of a server--its logical brain--into another piece of hardware. You've transmigrated the soul without any of the messy ethical considerations. This is a common theme in modern sci-fi, because the notion of where the essence of who we are lives (in wetware or hardware) fascinates us. I wrote today at the Economist's Babbage blog about my move from owning several rack-mounted servers to a couple of virtual private servers (VPSes), virtualized computers running on computers I'll never see or touch. The move was moving, and I'm hard pressed to understand why.
I couldn't understand why I was near tears. It was only a computer server I was shutting down, not pulling the plug on a life or saying goodbye to faithful pet. Nonetheless, my eyes were moist. ... Virtualisation is the classic brain-in-a-jar scenario. If you, dear reader, were a brain in a jar with all your sensory inputs mapped into a simulation program a la "The Matrix," how would you know? As long as the illusion were perfect--and no Agent Smiths intruded--you could live your life in blissful delusion. So, too, do virtual servers perform: unaware.
Photo by...what the hell! Cory Doctorow? I swear, I just did a search for brains. Via Creative Commons.


  1. “Virtualisation is the classic brain-in-a-jar scenario”

    Really bad analogy. The virtual server appears to us to be a real server, but it doesn’t think it’s a real server. In fact doesn’t think at all, its a computer.

    Better analogy: a virtual server is like a chunk of concrete that has been painted to look like a rock. To us it looks and functions like a rock, but it is in fact not a rock. It doesn’t know if it is a rock or concrete.

    1. The virtual server appears to us to be a real server, but it doesn’t think it’s a real server. In fact doesn’t think at all, its a computer.

      Ripley, she doesn’t have bad dreams because she’s just a piece of plastic.

  2. Really? I jump for joy every time we virutualized an application and kill off its dedicated hardware.. The increase in uptime and ease of maintenance saves me hours… Provisioning new systems from Virtual Templates is many times easier than maintaining IMAGES for constantly changing chip-sets.

    Then again we also maintain the virtual hosts in our datacenter, so instead of many low end 1U servers we now have a few high end multi-cpu hosts crammed to the brim with ram running as a cluster, moving loads back and forth keeping everything in balance.

  3. Recently I bought a new computer. I used Apple’s totally sweet migration tools to restore my old laptop’s backup onto my new Air. It took a few hours to shove all that data over USB.

    I felt somehow compelled to keep the old machine on for this entire process, even though it wasn’t actually involved in it. Once the move was complete I turned it off and didn’t touch it again for weeks. The whole thing felt like a serious mystical ceremony of transmigration, in some ways. (Admittedly I was completely fucking stoned for most of this process, which often puts me in that kind of mindset.) I spent the time doodling around on paper, and roughed out a drawing that I threw into Illustrator once I’d finished the transfer, and later printed out and stuck on the back of the new machine. Something to mark the transition.

    And yeah, there was some very weird emotional attachment to this act. This is data I’ve collected for years, it’s survived a natural disaster that a lot of my physical stuff didn’t. It’s most of the art I’ve generated for the past decade. In some ways it might be considered part of me. And I was in this strange netherworld, as my data-self migrated from one container to another.

    We personify this stuff; we name it, we create faithful servants. We put djinn into these complicated slabs of electronics, instead of into lamps.

    And we move on. My old laptop, finally, got a complete wipe and reinstall (with less ceremonial weight than the transfer seemed to have), and is now in the hands of my boyfriend. He doesn’t call it what I called it.

  4. I can sympathize – the first time you run into virtualization it seems just odd. The last company I worked at, I virtualized a whole bunch of old servers, and let me tell you, it was a celebration every time I got another barely-used power hog out of the datacenter – we ended up with a stack of elderly computer junk, moving to a much smaller datacenter space, and consuming half the power.

    Takes a certain amount of mental flexibility to admin a virtual cluster – especially when you’ve got corporate systems, multiple networks, ancient software, and you’re migrating to a new network architecture at the same time…

  5. It is exactly this anthropomorphizing neo-luddite mentality that has always slowed the adoption of new technology.

  6. What a hoot. I’ve been around long enough to see the world transition from centrally controlled big iron mainframes to widely distributed uncontrolled pc’s to clients running apps off servers, to a ‘the cloud’ and virtualized systems which are suspiciously close to big iron again…the great circle of life.

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