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The next generation

Fast-growing data centers experiment with new designs

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RagingWire’s new data center in Ashburn is a cool place, because it has to be. The $40 million facility, which opened in July, has 150,000-square-feet of space and a lot of heat-generating equipment. “When computers overheat, they shut down,” says Jim Leach, the Sacramento-based company’s vice president of marketing.

RagingWire boasts that its self-designed infrastructure system for managing the center won’t let that happen. It combines air-handling units — the largest in the world — Leach says,  with traditional air conditioning to move cool air through the building. The temperature is kept around 72 degrees with low humidity. On cool days, the system opens windows automatically, and on warmer days it pumps cool air. The system can support a power density of up to 200 watts per square foot.

The firm also promises that no matter what, its power supply will always work. “If the utility power is interrupted, we have multiple layers of diesel generators and battery backup,” Leach says. “What our [systems] do is allow us to monitor the delivery of the power all the way to the computer rack and make dynamic adjustments, based on the demands of the computer system and the availability of power. There’s a lot of technology that goes into that. If you can’t transmit the power from the utility to the computer system, then you’re in trouble.”

The RagingWire center is the newest in a fast-growing cluster of data centers in the Ashburn area of Loudoun County, and it represents the next generation of data center designs. There are about three dozen data centers in Ashburn already, and more are on the way. As cloud computing needs grow, data center providers are working to keep up. The county has about 4.7 million square feet of data center space and predicts that will increase to 6 million square feet over the next two years. Ashburn isn’t the only site for data centers in Virginia. There are clusters elsewhere in Northern Virginia, as well as in Richmond and Hampton Roads, but Ashburn is the biggest.

Digital Realty Trust, a wholesale data center provider, broke ground in May on a new center. The facility, at 430,000 square feet, is the first of four new data centers the company plans to build at its Ashburn campus, adding to the six buildings already there. Bob Holmes, vice president of portfolio management for Digital, says it will be ready by the first quarter of next year. Half the building will be just a shell for future expansion, while the other half will have 10 “turnkey flex” spaces, designed to give customers a lot of control over the design and technology used. “A customer comes in and fits it out to their specific requirements,” he says. The other new data center facilities will be built as the market demands, Holmes adds. “We’re able to bring this to market as fast as anybody in the world.”

The company is talking to a potential client about leasing a full building, Holmes says. “That’s typically how it evolves in the marketplace. We generally develop and build just-in-time” projects. “It leases up very quickly in Ashburn.”

A critical player in the fast growth in the Ashburn area is Dominion Virginia Power. The utility’s CEO, Paul Koonce, says it expects to connect nine data centers around the state this year. It has added “a number of extra high-voltage transmission lines” along with new substations and distribution circuits in the region. Ken Barker, Dominion’s vice president of customer solutions and energy conservation, says some older data centers aren’t big power users and need as little as one or two megawatts. But Virginia’s new data centers are at the high end of the scale, sometimes demanding 30 to 40 megawatts. “The data centers in Virginia are to that extreme,” Barker says,  and typically need a dedicated circuit fed from a substation via high-voltage transmission lines.

Outside of Northern Virginia the biggest new data center under way is being developed by QTS. It bought the former Qimonda semiconductor facility near Richmond two years ago. The building is 1.3 million square feet, so there is plenty of room for expansion. “We see that as developing into a data center cluster,” Koonce says.

Data centers increasingly are taking on a new design. In the past, centers were sterile, warehouse-like facilities with a lot of emphasis on security.  Newer ones like RagingWire still keep tight control over access, but they are adding space for tenant employees to work.  It has 7,500 square feet of flex office space, conference rooms and other amenities. Leach says many clients want to be near their data. “Probably the next generation of data centers is not only going to have office space like we have, but significant office space,” he says.

Buddy Rizer, assistant director of Loudoun’s Department of Economic Development, says the county is looking for ways to take advantage of the trend. “We see that, in the near future, a lot of tech companies are going to want to locate near data centers” in what would likely be a mixed-use project of office, retail and residential space and data centers. “When you start talking about cloud storage and cloud computing, the ability to be right here with your data might be a real advantage. That’s going to be the next frontier for us.”

Many of the new data centers coming online are benefiting from new tax breaks. In May, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed legislation that expanded the eligibility for a sales tax exemption, which used to apply just to enterprise data centers built by a company for its own use. Now data centers that lease space to a variety of tenants get the tax break, too. “That was a big celebration for us, because Virginia finally said, ‘We want all data centers,’ ” says Josh Levi, vice president for policy at the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

The state already has more than 50 data centers, with another 20 expected to be built in the next 10 years, according to a January report from the state’s Office of the Secretary of Technology. “Everything is being driven by [data] now,” Rizer says. “It’s all being stored in the cloud, and by and large that cloud is here in Loudoun County.”

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