FutureRack PILL Project Thread

Here is a dedicated forum thread to document my research and design journey with the FutureRack Protocol Pill project.

First of all, a little introductory information about myself: My background is in architecture, I have some experience with electronics and computer programming, and I’ve written before about how emerging technologies relate to the built environment. You can see more of my work on my website. I participated in SoP last year with the Addressable Space project.

For an introduction to my PILL project this year, here’s its RFC proposal description for reference:

“The 19” rack format, first pioneered in 1922, is a ubiquitous protocol for mounting telecom, audio/visual and IT equipment. Devices of varied shapes and sizes fit within racks which may be mounted on walls or on wheels, carried in portable cases by musicians and soldiers, and organized in rows inside our data centers.

Advertisements from a fictional manufacturer of rack adapters will aim to amuse online IT and audio engineering communities by illustrating new construction techniques to utilize the racks within unexpected settings such as kitchens, gardens and retail displays, expanding the protocol’s imagined vocabulary of configurations.”

I’ll update this thread with additional sections for information about different aspects of the project, and compile within this first post in the thread a set of links to each of those future posts.

Post links:

  1. Project backstory
  2. Rack history & context

I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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Part 1: Project Backstory

As a first step on my journey with this project this summer, I am going to share some of the story behind its gradual development as an idea.

I see the idea as having had several phases in its past gestation:

  1. I’m curious about data centers. As someone who has always been interested in electronics and who started building my own computers when I was in high school, I became curious when I noticed when I was in graduate architecture school around 2017/18 that there was a zeitgeist emerging in my field involving curiosity about data centers as an emerging building type. I wrote a paper on data centers in one of my seminar classes (which I learned enough from that I’d like to rewrite it and try to publish it somewhere), and in another class I did a series of drawings conceptually exploring the flow of air within data centers.
  • Rough initial sketches and 3D models made during the class, where I was trying to make initial gestural drawings abstracting the airflow inside a computer/server:

s4

(Since this was a drawing class, there was more of an emphasis on producing something visually and spatially interesting rather than necessarily documenting the technical details of the non-architectural aspects of my subject matter.)

  • Expanding my drawing ideas to encompass a rack of servers …

  • … and then a whole room of them:

(There’s a bit of a subplot going on with this project where I also have had a longstanding architectural interest in large aggregate quantities of objects/information, and in how that phenomenon manifests itself in physical space.)

  • The final drawing I did in the class, attempting to simultaneously look at airflow within the server and within the large set of racks at the same time:

(Images from the U.C. Berkeley class “Drawing Air” taught by Mark Anderson.)

  • That project encouraged me to think a little bit more about servers and server racks than I had before, in addition to the extent to which I had already been aware of their general form factors from reading articles about computer-related topics over the years.
  1. Musical rack devices. Over the course of a few years of the 2010s I also started increasingly noticing that ideas for song lyrics would randomly appear in my head. When the COVID pandemic happened, I decided to spend some time trying to teach myself how to produce music. (Current status: I’ve finished songs and shown them to small groups of people.) As someone who also found old electronics intriguing, over the next few years I acquired a collection of music production devices, some of which are older than I am. It seemed kind of interesting to me that many of them were designed to fit into the same rack format as the servers.


A few of my synthesizers (and their MIDI controller on top) which I had nearby to photograph.

  1. Technical standards as protocols. While I was participating in the 2023 Summer of Protocols program, I noticed that David Lang’s project on technical standards offered several useful relatively concrete reference points to help me refine my own definitions of what exactly a protocol is. I was also intrigued by his project’s references to the MIDI format developed as a standard for communication between music synthesizers as being an example of a protocol. One of his Town Hall slides showed some musical equipment (in the context of discussing the history of MIDI) in the same format as mine:

  2. I build a rack. After the 2023 SoP program ended I decided to take a little bit of time to better organize my music setup, which included starting to build a rack to mount some of my devices on:

  • I’m now faster at installing rack nuts into a frame than I was when I started building it. (And making mistakes while building it: ie. I know I installed the mixer and the Vortex device in the wrong screw holes on this rack, and some time I’m going to fix that…)
  1. Rack configuration options. Before I started gaining firsthand experience with using the rack format, I also noticed something strange when I was initially shopping for my rack. There is a surprisingly wide variety of different options for racks available for sale.
  • For example, you can get racks which extend in depth …


(Original product link.)

swing open for easy access to cables …

… are designed to be mounted to a wall

fold up for storage/shipping …

tilt for better ergonomics …

… or protect their internal mounted equipment with shock absorbers:

  • In addition to the common settings where racks are found within data centers, IT closets, music studios and stages, I also found rack products that were marketed for use by the military

… or in medical settings:

  • There were also a wide range of adapters available to connect 19" racks together in different ways, and to connect them with other rack formats. For example, here’s some adapters for connecting to the less common 23” wide racks


… and one for accommodating equipment extending outward beyond the front of a rack …

… and one for converting to the DIN rack standard:

  • It almost looked like I had encountered a highly-adaptive protocol.
  1. LEGO as an interchangeable protocol. On the SoP forum, Venkatesh Rao brought up LEGO as an example of a system which is flexible and adaptive enough to be a protocol rather than a platform. The 19” racks, I realized, might have a comparable range of adaptability, while also being used today in high-stakes as well as recreational applications. The relatively large dimensions of the rack system also intrigued me where they could be used to build structures operating on a larger spatial – ie. an architectural – scale. I liked the idea of translating some of my previous hobby-related experiences with computers and music production into a project that could also potentially contribute to my body of architectural work, and I decided to further explore the history and future possibilities of the racks as a protocolized system.

  2. Misuse of existing protocols. As I thought about the range of different rack adapters fitting into a system of protocols, I wondered about how different rack components might be combined together (as with non-standard LEGO building techniques like those discussed in the SoP forum thread) in unofficial, contradictory ways. In the back of my mind I was reminded of the conceptual reference of a project the architects Diller/Scofidio did in which they ironed dress shirts in ways that made them no longer correspond to their intended use of accommodating the dimensions of a human body:

  • You might say that they were distorting a normative protocol (the process of ironing / normal expectations of how clothing should appear) by doing it in a different order of steps, and then the outcome of that process transformation ended up producing an absurd result.
  1. Non-standard racks. Similarly, I wonder how the rack systems could be misused by combining their components together in different non-standard ways. Given the rack’s spatial potential, I also am interested in placing it into a wider range of settings where it could come into interactions with other existing systems of dimensional standards. For example, how do the dimensions of the 19” rack line up with the general standard dimensions found among different sizes and configurations of household kitchen cabinets, or of the dimensional sizes used on plant pots sold in garden stores? My goal for this summer is to expand the possibilities of the rack protocol by looking for absurd ways that it could be integrated into our everyday lives.

So far, I’ve started my process by doing more background research into the history of the rack system, which will be one of the next installments in my process which I post here. I also am developing further outlines of my future project plans. I’m looking forward to seeing how this project develops next!

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Rack History & Context
(To be further updated with additional information as I convert it into a forum post format.)

  1. History

    I have been further researching the historical backstory on the origins of the racks as part of this project. Progress on that has been a little slower than expected since there isn’t a lot of information available at the surface level of what you immediately find from quick online sources; I’m finding more relevant references buried in older materials like old books and manuals.

    Some summaries of what I’ve found so far, and what I’m still looking into:
  • I found a 1922 document from Bell Systems establishing their specifications for the 19" server rack format. (Internet Archive link.)
    It shows a record of how their equipment got consolidated over time onto increasingly organized and standardized racks.

  • I need to look more into other rack standards which developed before/after/alongside the 19" rack, like the 23" rack standard.

  • It looks like there may have been some parallel developments of rack systems for railroad signaling equipment alongside those of telecom equipment. I’ve seen speculation about that within blog posts + other kinds of online discussions which I need to verify.

  • I’ve also found some primary sources describing railroad signaling equipment (at early as the turn of the century) being organized in racks (“relay rack” I’ve discovered is a commonly-used term). I’m wondering if that approach might have been a predecessor to the telecom rack model.

  • I could also look into how telegraph equipment was mounted, prior to the arrival of more technologically advanced phone/radio-based communications equipment.
    (Source: “Richmond Terminal Interlocking” by C.J. Kelloway in Railway Signal Engineer Vol. 12, No. 1, January 1919. pg. 75-79)

  1. Rack standards
  • The 19” rack is also known as the EIA-310 standard. (EIA 310-D is the most recent widely recognized standard, and EIA/ECA-310-E looks to be a more recent standard developed after the consolidation of the EIA and ECA standards agencies.)
  • There are also some parallel standards from other (ie. international) agencies, in the form of DIN 41494 and IEC 60297.
  1. Related systems
  • This research should involve considering the scales of objects smaller and larger than the racks, ie. like 1960s+ mainframe computers (with the conceptualization of their scaling organized in increments of modules at roughly similar size to a ~20-36U rack cabinet) or blade servers (organized as ~8-16 blade units within ~6-10U of rack space).


    (Blade server image source: Flickr use seeweb / Creative Commons.)

    The Computer History museum has a page with some links to images/advertisements of the IBM System/360 and its competitors which I’ve been referencing to look at how the mainframes were marketed.