first passing a “mantrap” portal.
With the doors locked on either
side, you put your badge on a reader
that compares it with the real you
for a few seconds. Next, you put
the badge on another reader and
then put your finger on a fingerprint detector.
The portal leads you into the
network-operations center, where
workers in business casual monitor
the wall of screens, plus four monitors at their desks. Three Visa security gurus sit in a room behind the
main center. One has Sun Tzu’s The
Art of War, which might as well be
required reading here. They’re monitoring networks across Visa’s operations, looking for malware, for
odd behavior. Knight says about 60
incidents a day warrant attention.
Those incidents might turn out
to be a few employees in a Visa office
watching a You Tube video at the
same time, or it could be somebody
trying to penetrate a network. Less
likely is someone trying to hack
Visa’s core transaction network—
which is private, free from Internet
hazards like the denial-of-service
attacks that groups like Anonymous
love. When hackers took down Visa’s
corporate website in 2010, it had
zero effect on the core network.
//backupS For backupS
Hackers are one thing, but Knight
also loses sleep over network capacity. Visa and IBM routinely run tests
at an off-site lab to simulate maximum network capacity—currently
just over 24,000 transaction messages per second, about double
what Visa expects for this year’s
Christmas season. At some point
over that 24,000-message limit, “the
network doesn’t stop processing
one message. It stops processing all
of them,” Knight says.
This last happened in 2005,
when Visa had a system failure
while updating some software and
was down for the longest eight minutes of Knight’s life.
That event is one reason why
the OCE was built to meet the Up-time Institute’s definition of a “Tier
4” center, which means every major system—mainframes, air conditioners, batteries—has a backup.
It’s Visa’s first such center and is
strong enough to withstand
California-style earthquakes and
For example: If power goes out,
banks of batteries kick in, followed
by diesel generators that also have
backups. If a water main bursts,
there’s a 1.5-million-gallon water
tank (if that runs dry, Visa dug three
wells around the facility).
The only thing that might take
down the OCE, it seems, is us. Transaction growth has averaged 7% to
17% annually. Visa expects the OCE
to handle growth into the 2020s,
but at some point, of course, something will give.
come what may, the oce
has a plan to survive.
1 // Out-of-control backhoes!
four conduits bring electricity
into the building, so if a nearby
backhoe takes out one, the visa
network will keep humming.
2 // Electric surges!
every pod has two rooms with
uninterruptible power supplies to
condition the power coming in
and make sure there are no
3 // Total blackouts!
each pod has two rooms with
1,000 heavy-duty batteries each,
enough to turn the pod into the
world’s largest laptop computer
for 30 minutes.
4 // Natural disasters!
each pod has two massive diesel
generators, capable of generating
4 megawatts of power. they had
to be heavily soundproofed—
including 3-foot-wide mufflers—
so they wouldn’t violate county
5 // Anthrax copycats!
visa’s oce has no mail room. mail
goes to a modular building
nearby. that way, if a suspicious
powder arrives, the mail room can
just be airlifted away.
as cards rose in popularity,
Visa’s network grew steadily.
1986 the visa system allows
consumers to make purchases
in 21 currencies. (today it
supports 175 currencies.)
1995 visa check card launches,
allowing consumers to shop
with debit cards.
1996 visa prepaid card
2004 visa debit-card volume
globally surpasses credit.
what’s with the
2, 112 2,395
208 283 350 446 570 635 8071,012
Data shows average
//inSide “the pod”
A second mantrap portal leads into
the hub of the data center. Its main
corridor runs nearly three football
fields, linking seven 20,000-square-
foot rooms called pods. Two pods
house Visa’s core network, one has
its corporate networks, and one
handles development work. A fifth
pod was built out this year to handle
Visa acquisitions like Fundamo, a
South African maker of mobile payment software. Two pods await
We enter Pod 4, part of the network center. This is it—the heart, the
brain. It’s loud inside from the hum
of spinning hard drives and the whir
of fans inside rows of top-of-the-line
IBM mainframes, EMC storage ar-
rays, and Cisco switches. They’re
connected by miles of cabling—the
center has enough to run along I- 95
from Maine to Key West, Florida.
Though this room is key to a
network that makes modern life
possible, it seems designed to sep-
arate us fallible humans from the
network. People largely stay out.
Even the air conditioners sit just
outside the pod, so repair people
are kept away from the computers.
Scrawled on a wallboard inside
the OCE is the motto 7x24xforever.
Even in the event of the Apocalypse,
“we could run for at least a week,”
Knight says. Though he acknowledges that after the Apocalypse,
credit-card usage might drop.
the oce contains five 1,250-ton chillers
that chemically treat water, preventing
corrosion. then huge bright blue pipes
big enough for dog racing take 48-
degree water from the chillers through
the rest of the building, keeping the
computers cool. visa’s electronics run
hot enough to raise the water’s tem-
perature by 12 degrees—and evaporate
50,000 gallons a day—before it goes
back to the chiller.