Crossing Washington’s dense western suburbs, views spread out across open stretches of fields and farmland – a view often obstructed by vast, windowless buildings that house high-speed computers powered by technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence. make possible.
These data centers are popping up across the country from Virginia to Oregon. Each has hundreds of servers and routers that send and receive data for everyday tasks like streaming content to mobile devices and handling high-speed financial trades.
“It’s the engine that powers the machine,” said Gordon Dolwen, director of data center research in the US for commercial real estate services firm CBRE. “Everything on your phone is stored somewhere within four walls.”
Over the past few years, the need for data centers has grown exponentially due to changes in work habits during the pandemic and the development of cloud-based technologies. This means more buildings, more land, more cooling systems and more electricity to support the physical infrastructure that runs 24/7.
Technological advances will only increase the demand for data centers, said Noel Walsh, corporate vice president of cloud innovation and operations at Microsoft. “As a society, we are just getting started,” he said.
But finding enough land to build a data center and enough electricity to run it can be a challenge. And developers must address community concerns about these massive buildings, which are springing up next to housing developments and putting pressure on local electricity providers who have struggled to meet demand.
Northern Virginia is a major hub for data centers, partly because of its proximity to key parts of the physical infrastructure that form the foundation of the Internet. Amazon this year announced plans to build multiple data centers in Virginia by 2040, with an estimated $35 billion in investment.
On the West Coast, a similar center is located near Silicon Valley. Most of the world’s Internet traffic flows through sites in these two regions, which act as important Internet conveyor belts.
Industry analysts say there is a growing need to build data centers in the rest of the country, part of an effort to bring them closer to customers and take advantage of the increased availability of high-speed networks in rural areas and smaller towns.
The United States will have 2,701 data centers in 2022, the largest number in the world, followed by Germany, in second place, and Britain and China. Data compiled by Statista, In addition to its two coastal centers, US data centers are concentrated near major cities from Atlanta to Seattle.
Large digital companies and the federal government often own and operate their own data centers. Other businesses and governments often lease the space.
“Anybody who can get into someone else’s data center will do it,” said Jim Coakley, who develops, owns and manages high-security, high-density data centers. He built his first in northern Virginia about 20 years ago.
Loudoun County, Virginia, is a prime location for data centers, but nearby Prince William County is also experiencing a boom. Elected officials there recently approved a major zoning change for 2,100 acres, making way for nearly 25 million square feet of new data centers.
The zoning decision is not without controversy. known as digital gatewayThe land is adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park, which has superintendent has expressed concern about “potential irreparable damage” to the site. Ann Wheeler, chair of the Board of Supervisors in Prince William and a strong supporter of zoning changes, lost her re-election bid in the Democratic primary last week because of her support for more data centers in a grassroots campaign to oust her. The emphasis was on
According to research by IT consultancy Gartner, data centers will increasingly be built away from certain traditional locations and closer to the customers they serve. But finding land isn’t always easy.
“Trying to find suitable land sites that have enough power to erect these facilities – you need 10 times more than what I built in 2006,” Mr Coakley said. “They’re essentially taking in massive amounts of energy.”
The demand for data centers is so high that as soon as one is on the drawing board, space clears up quickly before even hitting the market.
“Any building that gets built gets leased,” said Ryan Goeller, principal at KLNB, a commercial real estate broker specializing in northern Virginia. “There is no vacancy.”
Still, energy demand is complicating growth in some parts of the country. Dominion Energy, Virginia’s main electric utility used by data centers, has said it is struggling to provide enough power. Some residents fear that the needs of the data centers in the area, such as the construction of new power lines and substations, could pass subsidies on to residents. As of February, Silicon Valley is facing similar challenges reports by CBRE.
To reduce energy demand, industry is trying to find greater efficiency, said Arman Shehabi, a staff scientist in the Energy Technologies Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“There’s been a lot of growth, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for efficiency and incentives for efficiency,” he said. And as major players in the data industry strive to go green over the next decade, the pressure is mounting.
The development of artificial intelligence “will require a new type of skill,” said Dr. Shehabi. “Right now it uses a lot of power, but it’s not clear whether that will remain true.”
Accordingly, power requirements and the availability of skilled electricians will drive many decisions on where to set up data centers in 2022. CBRE,
Other environmental concerns are also looming. Backup systems for data centers often rely on natural gas and diesel, which can counter efforts towards clean energy. Dr. Shehabi said, water needs are also increasing.
“We have to be strategic about where we place data centers and consider the water stress level of the area while designing them,” he said.
And the developers face opposition from neighbours. Alex Holt, a recently retired first-grade teacher living in Gainesville, Virginia, was surprised when a few yards from his townhouse development one morning a large wall appeared, marking the beginning of a data center. A developer had promised to build a town centre. “Years passed, and there was nothing.”
The community was eventually informed that the town center plan was to be replaced by a data centre, but Ms Holt said she did not understand the magnitude of the project at the time. And then, this year, “I looked out my front door and there was this huge wall on the left, and that’s when I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable,'” she said.
But others see positive changes in data centers. They have provided substantial business for the construction industry and especially for electricians.
The jobs pay about $75 an hour and offer a pension plan, said Joe Dabbs, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26, which represents workers in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, a past practice in many industries. Remnants. and most of Virginia. He estimates that half of the work at data centers is done by electricians.
“We are working in multiple shifts, seven days a week,” he added.