By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007
They are among the most fortified institutions in greater Washington. Personnel pass through "man traps," secure one-person entrances equipped with biometric scanners that read fingerprints, palms or retinas.
What are they guarding?
Several projects are underway in Northern Virginia to build highly secure data centers to protect the thousands of computer servers managing Internet traffic and storing digital files, ranging from e-mail to sensitive financial and medical information.
A growing appetite for Internet applications and a better understanding of the vulnerabilities in such systems after Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has helped revive an industry that had been hit hard by the dot-com bust.
"We've seen more activity in companies coming in and buying existing sites and quite a bit of new construction than we've seen in a long time," said Rich Miller, editor of Data Center Knowledge, an online trade publication.
Data-center construction accelerated this year, said John Kraft, chief executive of ServerVault, a Dulles-based data-center manager.
Analysts estimate that there are now 15,000 to 20,000 data centers across the country. One industry survey found that 80 percent of companies have plans to expand their facilities.
It's unclear how long the boom will last. A slowing economy could temper demand, as could rising power costs.
Data centers use an immense amount of electricity to run and cool rows of servers. In 2006, U.S. data centers consumed 61 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, at a cost of $4.5 billion, according to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report. That's enough electricity to power 5.8 million average American households in a year.
The recent construction activity is a turnaround of sorts.
During the dot-com boom, developers jumped into speculative data-center development. They counted on dozens of Internet start-ups looking for a place to park their data.
But many start-ups didn't last and the dot-com boom ended. So in Northern Virginia, as well as around the country, data centers were shut down, consolidated and used for office space, warehouses and industrial complexes.
"The demand for Internet services that drove the initial boom wasn't incorrect, it was just a few years too early," Miller said.
Data centers do not come cheap. Last week, Savvis opened a $20 million facility in Sterling, its third in the region.
A typical center costs $1,000 per square foot to develop -- double the price in the dot-com era due to better, but costlier technology and security, according to Miller.
Security measures account for much of the bill. The machines are locked in cages and sealed behind firewalls. Banks of backup batteries and diesel generators stand by to keep them humming in case of emergency.
The data centers are kept purposefully nondescript and outfitted with security cameras, fake entrances, bulletproof glass and Kevlar-lined walls. They include strategically placed hills and concrete posts designed to stop charging vehicles filled with explosives.
"One freak attack on a data center would amount to critical data lost," said Ted Chamberlin, principal analyst with research firm Gartner Inc. "It could easily shut down a company."
Few jobs accompany these gigantic facilities. Data centers typically employ only 10 to 30 people, depending on the size and services of the center. And it can sometimes be difficult for economic development officials to get the word out about new development, given security concerns.
"Some of these data centers have billions of dollars of transactions going through them," said Dorri O'Brien Morin, a spokeswoman for the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development. "They don't want people to know where they are."