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The ultimate geek road trip: North Carolina’s mega data center cluster

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This article is the first in a four-part series that we’re publishing this week.

One day, one tank of gas, and three data centers – it was a road trip that only a geek would dream up. My destination: a cluster of cutting-edge and massive data centers spread across a few hundred miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina.

If data centers, filled with thousands of servers, are the engines of the Internet, then North Carolina is one of the garages for the Hummers of the tech world: The state is where Apple (s AAPL), Google (s GOOG) and Facebook (s FB) have decided to build their East Coast data centers. It’s a coup for North Carolina to have wooed all three elite Internet brands.

View Road trip: The North Carolina data center corrider in a larger map

But that’s not the only reason the North Carolina data center corridor is important. As companies and consumers move more services and content into the cloud, and more people around the world get access to the Internet, it will spark a building boom for ever-larger data centers. According to a report from GigaOM Pro (subscription required), the number of data centers is growing at a 15 percent rate per year globally, and there are an estimated over 33 million servers in the world (over 500,000 individual data centers by some accounts). More and bigger data centers — and North Carolina’s are some of the world’s biggest — will, in turn, require a greater use of resources, from energy to land to water to human capital.

One thing North Carolina doesn’t have a lot of is clean power. The local utility Duke Energy largely runs off coal and nuclear. So in an unprecedented move, Apple is trying to engineer its own clean energy here. It is building the world’s largest privately-owned solar panel farm, and a huge fuel-cell farm that will run on biogas. North Carolina is thus an experiment of whether tech companies can develop sustainable ways to manage the exploding rates of Internet usage and data consumption.

Poles dot the dusty solar farm, which will eventually hold solar panels.

The state’s data center corridor is also a test of the new IT economy’s power to create jobs. In the old days, if a town landed a GM car plant or a Nucor steel factory, it created thousands, or even tens of thousands, of jobs, spawned an entire economic base, and ensured a middle class. But much of the Internet-fueled tech economy is famously lean. Economists will be watching closely to see whether North Carolina’s data center corridor can help change the employment picture north of Charlotte, which has been hobbled by the decline of manufacturing.

Road trip. . . to see data centers?

The road trip starts off on a rain-soaked, commuter-clogged morning in the SouthPark neighborhood of Charlotte (check out our Google Map of the trip). Forty-five miles later — past BBQ joints, local churches like The Lambs of Christ, and a John Deere outlet — I find myself in Maiden (population: a bit over 3,000). The sleepy, and economically depressed, outpost, just an hour’s drive from the Appalachian Mountains, has a smattering of homes, each with an American flag fluttering in the gentle breeze.

The downtown has just a couple open stores, including Catawba Surplus and Firearms, which buys and sells guns, and Scottie’s Bar-B-Que, which serves me up a plate of black-eyed peas, fried okra and baked beans for under $6. A Jeep pulls in front of me with a sticker on the back window that reads, “Girls Hunt Too!” in pink writing with the outline of a deer head.

Downtown Maiden, North Carolina

This is about as far away as you can get from Silicon Valley, but it’s home to Apple’s data center and massive solar farm. While Apple is known for its leading-edge design, the data center itself looks like a standard server farm: a huge gray bunker-looking building with few windows and a lot of power lines snaking into it. The location is marked only by signs for the construction company, Holder Construction, that is helping Apple build its solar farm across the street from the data center.

The entrance to Apple’s solar farm

Before lunch, I circle the perimeter of the solar farm in my bright-red rental car and pull off the highway to try to catch a peek at the solar panels. Hundreds of poles dot the flat dusty field. Eventually I think these poles will be fitted with solar panels and mechanical trackers that will tilt the panels to follow the sun throughout the day. A sign on the fence I’m peeking through warns trespassers to stay off the land (and also to not “molest quail,” which causes my inner Beavis to start laughing).

Stay out! Of Apple’s solar farm

How to land a data center in your town

The Internet giants chose this rural, economically depressed and socially conservative region as the hub for some of their biggest data centers in large part because they were courted by the state and local counties. Other areas — Prineville, Oregon, Quincy, Washington, and Northern Virginia — have used similar tactics to achieve similar results to recruit data center operators.

Economic development groups and the local utility in North Carolina, starting at least back in 2005 and 2006, began targeting tech companies with the promise of cheap, reliable power and tax breaks, in an effort to replace lost manufacturing jobs. Beyond Apple, Google and Facebook, North Carolina is home to data centers for Disney, Wipro, AT&T, Charlotte’s banking community, the state’s own data center, and other facilities by major companies.

But landing this slate of elite tech companies so far hasn’t really moved the needle on the state’s overall long term employment. Data centers can create hundreds of construction jobs in the building phase, but tend to only create a couple dozen long-term jobs once the facilities are built — and these jobs are often for highly trained engineers rather the typical local resident.

Invisible in plain site

It’s not easy to tour the data centers here. The Internet giants (even the ones that tend to be transparent) aren’t exactly eager to show off their facilities for competitive and security reasons. They don’t tend to let any outsiders — let alone a reporter — inside the vaults. My road trip was largely of the grounds and regions, not of the aisles of servers themselves.

The sign in front of Google’s data center

Thirty miles northwest of Maiden is Lenoir, a much larger town (about six times the population) than Maiden. It’s home to Google’s $600 million data center, which was the first in the area back in 2006 and 2007. From the outside, Google’s data center looks more impenetrable than a maximum security prison — it’s got large mesh-covered fences topped with barbed-wire that block off any view of the facility and also deter trespassers. I take a picture of the Google sign at the front of the complex, and a guard steps out of a booth and starts yelling.

The building around Google’s data center has high mesh-covered fences and barbed wire around it.

Another 60 miles southwest of Lenoir is Facebook’s data center in Forest City, the newest site in the region. You can easily see it from the freeway, and it’s the biggest building around for miles. The entrance is marked only by a Facebook sign. The first of the data center’s two buildings is already up and running and serving traffic on the East Coast. The entire facility will be done by late this year or early next year.

Facebook’s data center

Along the road trip to the North Carolina data center triangle, (and before and after), I interviewed local economic development groups, the local utility Duke Energy, Google and Facebook’s data center executives, and residents in the towns that are home to the data centers. Apple declined to be interviewed for this story.

This week I’ll publish a four-part series of articles looking at different facets of North Carolina’s emerging data center cluster, including the story of how Apple’s iCloud data center got built, and a look inside the controversial world of clean power and data centers.

The physical Internet

Beyond the important economic, technological and environmental issues at stake with data centers, these massive buildings occupy an unusual role in society. The Internet is so commonplace these days that most people when they shop from a web site or download an app don’t think for a second about where the infrastructure that executes those commands resides, or what fuel is burned to get that data to your screen. Being able to see up close the actual source that served up that Facebook page you just looked at is like exposing the inner workings of some hidden machine.

That world of connected server machines will only grow more massive as more people in China, India and Brazil get Internet connections and buy stuff online. More and more data centers will need to be built in close proximity to the Internet’s future users in mega cities like Beijing, Delhi, and Sao Paulo, and these data centers will be increasingly serving up traffic to mobile devices.

How, where and under what terms Internet companies build data centers will be a key to the future of their companies. Your music library might be housed in rural Maiden but you, as Apple’s customer, will insist on accessing it at lightening speed from anywhere in the world. As you listen to your favorite songs this week, and read over this series of articles, think about where that web page, song or photo is actually coming from, and what resources it took to bring it to you.

Below is a gallery of my photos from the trip. Also stay tuned for these stories this week:

On Tuesday: 10 reasons why Apple, Facebook & Google chose North Carolina for their data centers

On Wednesday: The controversial world of clean power and data centers

On Thursday: The story behind how Apple’s iCloud data center got built

21 Responses to “The ultimate geek road trip: North Carolina’s mega data center cluster”

  1. Its great news hearing that Facebook has built a massive data center in my county.New companies like Horsehead,Valley Fine Foods are coming to this area because of the exposure of lands a huge popular company.Lets just hope that more jobs will come to places like Rutherford county.

  2. Lenoir citizen

    I have lived in Lenoir NC all of my life, with the exception of the time I spent in college. Growing up here was like living the middle class dream, everyone had jobs, and everyone had the money to live a decent and good life. The furniture factories outsourced all of the jobs over the past decruinous area was left in economic ruin.

    I was in high school when google was talking about coming here. They had people from the local community college give grand talks at our school saying how google was coming and that anyone who wanted a job there could take a class at the college and get one. Everyone was optimistic about the supposed tons of jobs it would bring, especially after a decade of hard times and lost jobs, and our politicians gave them an arm and a leg. They received massive tax breaks, and our property taxes were raised 22.4 percent. I just don’t see how that can be received as a good idea, when everyone I know is already struggling.

    Well, the deal goes through and all the promises turn out to be lacking of truth. With the exception of a few local hires for staff and maintenance, and temporary construction, very few benefits have been seen. I’m aware of the benefits of the few people that were relocated here putting money into our economy, but they are minimal at best considering the massive concessions made to get the data center here. There was actually a lawsuit from a group in Lenoir against google concerning the lack of jobs provided, but I can no longer find that link on google, the case was dismissed. And to the concern about the area taking up land needed for agriculture, the data center was built on the outskirts of town where old factories were.

  3. As an admittedly biased fan of nuclear power, I disagree with you lumping coal and nuclear together as “unclean” power. Coal is dirty, but nuclear is extremely clean — no carbon, no pollutants into the environment.

  4. Everett Thompson

    No. Carolina is getting a lot of attention. It makes sense for a variety of reasons, including the economic base there…Charlotte is the second largest financial hub in the US. Outside of NC and Oregon, Colorado and specifically Colorado Springs is another large DC market – Walmart is building a 40 MW site there, following other firms such as HP, FedEx, Progressive Insurance, Agilent Technologies and others. The Spings is also recognized by the Federal Gov’t as an urban renewal area, entitling sites recognized in the census to Federal incentives, in addition to the typical state and municipal incentives of Oregon and NC.

  5. Lewis Lightner

    A data center in itself is not a mother load in terms of ROI and adding to a local economy. However the high-tech ecosystem created by these sites has proven to be a driving incentive to court data center construction in North Carolina. Support companies want to locate in close proximity to their customers. The data center is the dangling carrot to lure these smaller companies that add to the ROI and economic growth of the area. So the focus isn’t necessarily on the data center itself but rather on the bigger picture of building the complete ecosystem.

  6. Sandeep Kamat

    Great Article.
    Always wondered what these datacenters for google, facebook, apple etc looked like.
    I am surprised by the small number of employees needed to run the Datacenter operations. Just 60 to 67 for a 24X7 operation ?. I think they must only be the employees needed to do the physical on-site work for the datacenters. for e.g replace a failed server or hard disk do the physical cabling etc .
    Most of the other operational staff (which could be large)required to monitor, system admin, trouble shoot etc must be remote even offshore maybe ?

  7. sɹǝɥʇɐǝɟʞɔɐןq

    “but you, as Apple’s customer, will insist on accessing it at lightening speed from anywhere in the world.” it’s lightning, not lightening. i’ve seen this misspelling way to often on the internet. i don’t understand why this is.

  8. Ian Andrew Bell

    The States and Municipalities have been conned/lobbied into luring these parasites to their regions by the power companies. The companies tout the usual: “jobs!” but everyone knows the truth… this is about driving revenue growth for the utility industry in regions where growth has stagnated as manufacturing has spun down. The unfortunate part is that these centres could otherwise be located in areas where energy is derived from cleaner sources (other than coal) like hydroelectric — but those regions are governed by folks smart enough not to be conned by Big Coal.

  9. Jeremy

    Katie, do you think this sort of thing will become a problem for locals in NC? What I mean is, typically in rural (or non-urban) areas, the community is based on much land-ownership. When big businesses come into town, they tend to force those people to give up their land and eventually move out of their homes. How do you think this will have an impact on the local communities?

    • @Jeremy, I address that a bit in my fourth post. But the reality is that these counties, in particular, are really economically depressed and are actively trying to market and sell these plots of land. I don’t think making people move was a large issue in these NC cases (that I heard from people) but people that live nearby the Apple solar farm have been vocally critical of the smoke and dust from clearing the land for solar development. In Forest City, they had a business park ready and sold it to Facebook. Same with Apple in Maiden. So the county had already groomed the land for business for months before the Internet guys came in. Not sure that answers your question, but hopefully helps.

      • Jeremy

        I was just curious what your take on the issue is, but I’ll look forward to reading your fourth post. I know a lot of the small towns in that area became towns because of agriculture or some type of manufacturing, but those jobs are now in another country, leaving these towns behind to slowly decay. I hope that these data centers will provide some long-term help to the areas and not some exploitative, negative impact on old communities. And I really just hope it’s not another outcome like when Walmart moves into a town.

    • Paul Michniak

      Hi jeremy – valid questions for sure. One thing that is unique about the area is that a) the textile industry has been severely (and I mean, life support if at all) damaged and b) tobacco is no longer grown as the big cash crop as it once was. So any industry, particularly big names, are welcomed by local folks. Unlike some areas, NC is very pro business of any kind. Katie is correct in saying that the municipalities have prepared the sites in hopes of landing a good tenant. This includes power, water and sewer. From what I understand, those counties have an abundance of all those resources. It would be nice to add some Engineering to those towns. Western North Carolina would be a great place for creative software and hardware engineers to live, work and play. Cheers! [email protected]

  10. Katie, those “poles for solar panels” you show appear to be nothing more than (wood) construction stakes which act as guidelines for the grading equipment operator.

    As a comparison, the poles that my solar panels are on (14 on each pole) are 8″ in diameter, 1/2 thick walled steel tubes that are 7 foot tall above ground….

    • Hey Kosh, They’re made of metal not wood and they aren’t stakes, they’re poles. I have a closer shot, I’ll add it in if that’s helpful. But also I’m not positive, that’s why I said in the article “I think,” not I know. And Apple wouldn’t respond for this article. I’ve visited other under construction solar sites, and have seen similar looking poles.

  11. @Michael Ridley, They’re some of the biggest data centers in the world — which require a growing amount of resources — and Apple’s is unique in that is has such a large onsite solar farm. This is the first of four articles looking at things like clean power for data centers, and a deep dive into how communities recruit data centers to their area. It’s not a news story for sure.

  12. Really not sure what the purpose of this article is. The data centers being built in North Carolina are certainly larger than traditional ones, but otherwise this is unremarkable. There is a much higher concentration of data centers in Silicon Valley and in Northern Virginia. It doesn’t make all that much sense for them to be so spread out, given that they all need access to a good peering exchange. I guess the reason probably has to with incentives from competitive municipalities.

    It’s unclear to me why North Carolina would want these things anyway. They create very few jobs and for the most part they are NOT senior engineering jobs. They consume an incredible amount of power and in some cases water. If it were my municipality I’d require them to open an engineering office as well in order to take advantage of the incentives being offered.

    • peter

      I agree on a local level that there doesn’t seem to be much ROI for NC, but perhaps we should assume that there is enough profit, even after all the perks, to make it better than nothing. In particular had I been involved in the bargaining, the main concession I would look for is for a build-out of fast fiber to be available at least for the immediate locality. That would be a game-changer for any backwater.
      As far as energy/water consumption, look at it from the macro view — it is vastly more efficient for the country as a whole to make use of the internet+UPS/FEDEX than to have each person drive around and window shop, if you can recall such a concept.