Massive, windowless buildings rise from empty fields in eastern Loudoun County. Large, exterior power systems suggest something big is going on inside. Some buildings are surrounded by black fences and security gates. Most are known by company names unfamiliar to all but those in the data center industry – names like Raging Wire, CyrusOne, Dupont Fabros, Digital Realty and Equinix.
What’s inside these giant buildings is a mystery too, and security is tight.
What we do know is that mega companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are being serviced by these giants. We also know that Loudoun County is becoming the king.
Much has been written over the years about Internet traffic and the data management industry in Loudoun County. There was a time when America Online (AOL) was the big dog in town and the subject of most of these stories. AOL is still here, but the growth of the data center industry is the big story now – and one the biggest business stories in the nation. It has also transformed how Loudoun County is seen around the world.
Loudoun is home to more than 60 data centers that house some 3,000 technology companies. Equinix alone has 11 centers in the county. Buddy Rizer, executive director of the County’s Department of Economic Development (DED), calls it “Data Center Alley,” where about seven million square feet of data center space has been built and another three million is in development, not including the recent announcement by CyrusOne of its plans for the Kincora project at Route 28 and Route 7.
Up to 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic flows through these data centers each day, and the region includes the largest concentration of tech workers in the United States, according to the DED.
“Data centers are a major economic driver in Loudoun County,” said Rizer. He points to many reasons for Loudoun’s success in recruiting them, including the availability of land that is required for their buildings, the surrounding infrastructure and the accessibility of fiber.
“We first started seeing major players coming over in the late 1990s,” Rizer said. “Loudoun is a tech hub now, bringing people from all over the world here who are experts in IT.”
A data center centralizes an organization’s IT operations and equipment, and where it stores, manages and disseminates its data. Looked at simplistically, it’s a giant network server. Data centers house a network’s most critical systems and are vital to the continuity of daily operations. Consequently, the security and reliability of data centers is a top priority for their clients.
While data center designs are unique, they can generally be classified as internet or enterprise. Internet-facing data centers usually support relatively few applications, are typically browser-based, and have many users. Enterprise centers service fewer users, but host more applications that vary from off-the-shelf to custom applications.
Industry research company International Data Corporation (IDC) puts the average age of a data center at nine years. Gartner, another research company, says data centers older than seven years are obsolete. This helps make Loudoun County fertile ground for new centers.
The Tribune visited one giant, RagingWire, to learn more about what’s going on inside the thick walls, and why Loudoun attracted them. The company operates a 150,000-square-foot facility in Ashburn.
Jim Leach has enjoyed a 25-year career bringing to market technology-based products and outsourced services for business and government organizations.
For the past 10 years, Leach has been at the forefront of developing innovative technology services. His professional bio includes helping introduce ultra-high availability data centers, second generation cloud computing solutions, virtual private networks and route optimization, application hosting, content delivery networks, internet registry and DNS services, and web performance monitoring and testing. He was a marketing executive for several major companies during that time, and now is vice president of marketing for RagingWire.
“We have extensive physical security,” said Leach during a tour of the RagingWire facility. “We have concrete walls that could stop bombs and vehicles trying to break them down, and security that monitors guests and only allows authorized people in.”
All guests require an escort, and there are cameras everywhere that watch every move. “Double security for one door, eye identification and passcode. That’s why data centers are as big and secure as they are,” Leach continued.
While physical security is the most obvious, there is even more digital security.
“A data center holds so much of a company’s personal information,” Leach said. “That includes client addresses, social security numbers, things that could be used to steal identities, business information that could lead to hacks, and other information that could destroy a business.”
RagingWire’s systems are set up with complex codes and digital barriers so even if someone made it through all the physical security, they would still have to get through the sophisticated digital protection, according to Leach.
“People wouldn’t be able to access many of their favorite web sites if it wasn’t for data centers,” Leach said. “The server we store and care for is how they’re getting to that site. Same thing with digital clouds and online storage. That info is held in data centers,” he added.
Global data center powerhouse CyrusOne has had a presence in Loudoun since 2014, and recently announced a deal with the developers of Kincora to build a 40-acre center there.
“Northern Virginia, in particular the area around Sterling, is the largest data center market, recently surpassing the New York/New Jersey market,” said Kevin Timmons, Chief Technology Officer of CyrusOne. “The driving force for data center growth is the amount of abundant fiber and local initiatives in Northern Virginia, which have made the area one the most highly connected Internet locations in the U.S.”
For those familiar with the operation of data centers, Timmons highlighted his company’s just-in-time model. “CyrusOne’s goal has been to improve our supply chain efficiency to the point whereby we can deliver a completed data center in the same timeframe that our customers can order and receive the computing equipment that will reside in the data center,” he said.
Timmons foresees the continued need for more data center space, citing the increasing amounts of data being generated, the requirements of mobile users, connectivity needs and equipment refreshes that tend to change data center requirements.
“Increasingly, new or additional data center space is being placed in outsourced data center facilities,” he noted. This out-sourcing, playing out in Loudoun County, reduces up-front capital outlays for user clients.
Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), vice chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, emphasized that data centers provide a major tax benefit to Loudoun County too.
“Currently, data centers contribute approximately $80 million in revenue to Loudoun County on an annual basis,” said Buona. “To put this into perspective, this represents about 12 cents on the real property tax rate. If Loudoun had to raise the tax rate by this amount to replace these revenues, this would result in an additional annual tax bill of $600 for a homeowner whose home is assessed at $500,000.”
Buona also noted that a large portion of these revenues come from personal property taxes, not real property taxes, because of what’s inside the data centers.
“Silicon Valley is known worldwide as the home of technology, and with good reason,” said Rizer. “But there is actually a larger concentration of science and technology companies in the Dulles Technology Corridor than anywhere else in the country. What the Bay area has been to computers, Loudoun County has been to the internet and cloud computing. That’s why MSNBC and others have called us the ‘Silicon Valley of the east.'”