Following the initial planning and construction phases, the presence and benefits of operating Data Centers in Northern Virginia seem currently limited, or perhaps simply not well-known, in terms of local, positive community visibility and impact (beyond direct revenue via commercial taxes and the indirect boost to community bond ratings and real estate values).
Are Data Centers good neighbors, active and involved in the business and social fabric of the region – or can they be? What's the indirect, community ROI for these massive boxes without windows along the Greenway – the kind of ROI that both benefits and relies on the entire community?
Questions are being raised more frequently – and starting to be addressed – here and around the world like the following:
1. Will the Centers continue growing (due to data processing demands), or will they shrink (due to new technologies that drive data center infrastructure consolidation and performance optimization and smarter or more distributed data use)?
2. What if a Center is underutilized, goes out of business, or demand for this area simply dries up in favor of much cheaper investment prospects – are there other uses for this kind of facility?
3. Are Data Centers good neighbors, how noisy or wasteful are they really, and do they really hire locally?
4. How are the Data Centers connected to our growing need for STEM initiatives, do they offer Internships?
5. What benefit is there for Data Center IT services, for local businesses – why not host my IT in Texas?
6. What kind of local goods and services can a Data Center continue to use, or generate demand for (after construction)?
7. Does this concentration of sensitive, valuable information pose a physical, critical infrastructure security threat to my community?
8. Can we put a soccer field (with heated turf) on top of a Data Center?
9. Where exactly is “DC's Technology Corridor"?
The presence of Data Centers in this area is no doubt an extremely beneficial element of the entire region's economic development and sustainability progress – particularly as they continue to be built. And, it's very good to be in the Data Center business right now. This is backed by the increasing tax revenues, land values, and increasing visibility and presence of this region on the world stage (further compounded by the proximity to Dulles Airport, and the Metro Silver Line under construction). The increase of assessed value of the county improves the bonding capacity of the county for local school projects. The technologically-advanced planning and construction have driven significant downstream projects to upgrade the electricity distribution, generation and water infrastructure, which we all benefit from, and become catalysts for additional telecommunication investments. They assist in the advancement of new industry initiatives, for the region, maintaining or increasing the local competitiveness and attractiveness of the region, to the benefit of all businesses.
They become (and currently are) an attractant for other data centers, service providers and a well-educated workforce, a magnet, the "cool factor", a "symbol of transformation", generating tons of political capital and psychological benefit – which tends to be very desirable and valuable in this area near Washington DC.
Every community needs a Data Center, it seems.
Are the benefits truly sustainable though, or more fleeting? How can the industry segment as a whole leverage their assets to drive or create additional local business opportunities and spending? How can these physical IT clusters compound potential economic growth?
In researching this article, it seems that calculations of indirect benefits & revenue impacts, economic multiplier effects, recycling of local spending statistics, ancillary business growth trends, economic activity metrics – the available examples and reports are all mostly model-based, without granular, experiential traceability to specific, physical community locations or segments. In other words, the direct and indirect benefits of a Data Center (beyond the various tax revenues), current and forecasted, for the communities immediately proximate to it – are not well and publicly documented, if at all.
Why should this be important, to both the Data Center community and those around it? Why should we be discussing this at all, now? Would this heresy not be construed as "biting the hand that feeds it"?
Improving and extending this important and valuable presence over the long haul is an enabler of dual business objectives, for the Data Centers – (A) to mitigate long-term business risks, and (B) to identify and exploit business opportunities. A significant increase in public, online, localized dialogue and information-sharing by the Data Centers, leveraging their information assets and community relationships, would be a very positive and productive investment in the local community that also supports these business objectives. (Note that this argument applies to any community with significant Data Center facilities investment – though Northern Virginia is a particularly large, influential and quickly-growing example.)
How exactly would additional direct and indirect benefits be generated by the presence and activities of a local Data Center?
The presence of a large data center business (DC) in a local or regional community (like Ashburn, or more broadly, Northern Virginia) includes a complex set of identities to manage and steward.
Why must these identities be properly managed?
1. Risk - To manage business, geo-political and environmental risks
2. Growth - To grow the business within its local communities
3. Sustainment - To sustain the business within its local communities
What "identities" are we addressing?
Generally Well-known Identities – these are the aspects of most Northern Virginia Data Centers that local industry and public communities typically see and interact with, i.e. the Data Center as:
1. A local employer
2. A source of local, public or industry segment resources – primarily tax revenue, or in-kind, directed contributions/donations (i.e. non-profit hosting services)
3. A user/purchaser of local resources, from facility supplies, energy and materials to IT equipment and services
4. A producer of physical community impact, from waste and pollution to space and frontage aesthetics
5. A participant in local government planning and operations – from energy and land use policy to economic development and homeland security
6. A physically-visible/accessible business/storefront/group of employees, customers & vendor partners (i.e. events, in-person groups, speakers, etc.)
7. A hidden/secure/protected business/group of employees, customers & vendor partners
Generally Unknown Identities – these are the aspect of most Northern Virginia Data Centers that are not usually well-known to the local industry and public communities, i.e. the Data Center as:
8. A local workforce development, education and training resource
9. A virtually present, accessible and locally-tagged business/storefront/group of employees, customers & vendor partners (i.e. online presence, groups, events, communities, advertising)
10. A local container of rapidly-depreciated physical assets
11. A container of protected and/or reusable information assets with local relevance, usefulness
As an opinion, most corporate members of the local Northern Virginia data center community can and should more comprehensively, locally and aggressively manage their full profile of identities, particularly the "Generally Unknown Identities", to maximize their business benefits, their community ROI. Some are already doing so.
How can they do this, what ideas are out there?
Here and there around the world, some examples are evolving of direct and indirect benefits that Data Centers generate for their immediate and virtual communities - most are more effectively instituted where the Data Center is in an urban or suburban area (like Northern Virginia).
Here are some more local ideas for this particular community of Data Centers to consider, some fairly quixotic, some not so much:
- Offer regular tours, tech day overviews - not only for industry groups, but schools and Universities – physical and virtual
- Internships, and perhaps guest lectures & tech transfer initiatives (regarding things like energy management, networking optimization, data security), aligned with local STEM or technology certification initiatives (or create one!)
- Offer opportunities for local product and service companies, perhaps set-asides for smaller or locale-identified disadvantaged businesses
- Parking Lot Farmer's Market
- Ways to reuse excess heat - perhaps distribute hot water close by - to things like car washes, swimming pools, greenhouses, chicken incubators? (See Farmer's Market, above)
- Build a soccer field(s) on the roof - with an external pedestrian access bridge, and heated turf (grass requiring water and roots don't seem appropriate over loads of electrical equipment).
- Excess, underutilized or recovered computing & storage resources, perhaps also software licensing, set-aside and managed free or very low cost for local businesses, nonprofits and startups - the community data center, free "cold" or "warm" backup for local data.
- Contribution of marketing and advertising assets (i.e. their websites, channels, ad buys) to the local economic development and/or nonprofits to help promote more of the social and business fabric of the area
- Anonymize, privatize, redact as necessary - but surface datasets and raw metadata concerning the Data Center's computing operations, software utilization, storage and HVAC trends - for use by local business or government interests - particularly those that might develop more effective, better-performing solutions for the Data Centers to use or adopt.
- More inside space set aside for local public use, business incubation, school projects or clubs, etc., perhaps also co-located tech users, like call centers.
- Competition or "leagues" among the datacenters, their staff, stakeholders and supporters - and not only softball or community service activities, but online virtual gaming, fund-raising, segmented research or problem-solving (addressing community needs).
- Host a community-centric competition or forum (all together, perhaps moderated by an organization such as the NVTC , to solicit ideas for community collaboration and benefit.
By Ted McLaughlan