The ‘stress test’ for data centers
During COVID-19 crisis, broadband consumption has risen 50% during daytime hours.
The internet hasn’t blown up — yet.
But the primary data center hub of the world — Loudoun County — where more than 70% of all internet traffic passes through the county’s Ashburn area, has seen a 50% spike in daytime broadband consumption since the coronavirus crisis began, says Buddy Rizer, Loudoun County’s executive director of economic development.
“The study that we’ve seen says that broadband consumption between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. has gone up more than 50%, and then in the evening it has increased 20%,” Rizer says. “We’re looking at consumption per household going up to about 400 gigabytes, and that’s like an 11% increase over what we normally see. I think that this has been a pretty good stress test for the industry on what is the extreme case for utilizing the internet.”
With a number of industries now working from home, it’s creating demand for cloud storage and networking services on data centers that are prevalent in Northern Virginia. And there’s also been increased strain on data center bandwidth from workers using video teleconferencing for meetings, not to mention the skyrocketing demand for streaming video among homebound consumers during the crisis. “Video takes up so much space, so much bandwidth, and with everybody meeting on GoToMeeting, consuming everything else,” Rizer says. “But [it’s also due to] the increase that we’re seeing from people that are home and watching Netflix more and Amazon Prime and Apple TV and all those things.”
Despite the surge in activity, there haven’t been any massive internet outages, Rizer says. But many data center development projects are getting fast-tracked to keep pace with the demand.
“We’ve had a fast-track program in place for a long time to help priority economic development projects,” Rizer says. “But when … we started to see the surge, the major cloud companies have come to us and said, ‘Can you help us improve that timeline? Can you help us get the permits faster? Or can you do a quick review? Is there a way that we can submit digitally?’ We’re just trying to be as customer friendly as we can because when we look around, we see everybody as dependent on the data centers and the infrastructure of the internet right now.”
But how long do these projects typically take to complete?
“It depends,” says Gregory Riegle, a partner at Richmond-based McGuireWoods LLP and a member of the law firm’s data center leadership team. “Even without the need for conditional zoning approvals, it’s still [seven to nine] months to get a permit to get in the ground and turn a shovel and start constructing. And then it’s still another several months to build the building.”
Although these projects take months to complete, Dale Mullen, also a McGuireWoods partner on the data center leadership team, anticipates that Virginians will see data centers pop up in more populated areas as a reaction to increased needs for cloud services driven by teleworking. “From a Virginia business perspective, you will see centers of data located in more places,” Mullen says.
And despite the challenges of remote work during the crisis, Loudoun County has kept up with the workload to keep projects moving at pace or ahead of schedule as cloud services have become essential for most operations.
Rizer considers data center infrastructure a utility, like water and electric. “It’s become important to education. It’s become important to safety. It’s become important to the way we work and the way we are entertained,” he says.
Although Loudoun County has done what it can to stay on time, it’s been more difficult than ever to get necessary equipment in to build new and upkeep current infrastructure.
“The delivery methods and the pipeline — the distribution networks — have definitely slowed down,” Rizer says. “We’re seeing parts that have been delayed in delivery, especially coming out of the Middle East and Asia.”
To navigate supply-chain challenges, Loudoun County set up a portal for the data industry to borrow or exchange equipment. They’ve also been holding weekly conference calls with the industry to discuss needs, Rizer says.
Despite Loudoun County’s efforts to keep up with data center demand, some residents in the county still struggle to hold on to reliable internet.
Joe Dimino, an information security customer adviser working from home three miles west of rural Hillsboro, struggles with internet reliability despite his proximity to Loudoun’s data centers.
“We could use real internet out here,” he says. “My company gave me a Sprint hotspot, but this is a dead zone for Sprint. I tether off my mobile phone. I had to do it last week. You only get so much data. For one day it’s OK as a stopgap.”
Stephenie Overman contributed to this article.