How Ashburn Became Ashburn

Author: Vinay Nagpal, Portman Partners Associate

Some of us from the NVTC Data Center & Cloud Infrastructure Committee recently participated in a panel discussion at AFCOM Data Center World. The topic of the panel discussion was “The Making of Data Center Alley – How Ashburn, VA Became the Top Data Center Market in the World.

Over the last two decades or so, Ashburn has clearly made its mark on the Internet infrastructure industry. It is indeed the leading data centre market in the world – if you go by numbers, over 75 data centres, 10M sq. ft. of operating data centre capacity, over 1 GW (1000 MW), with another 4.5M sq. ft. under development. Just to put things in perspective, 1 MW can power one single-family home, so that is enough to power 1,000 single-family homes. Dominion Energy has done a phenomenal job of being a fantastic partner of the data centre community. In addition to constantly adding capacity, they also have various renewable energy programs in place for the data centre community to utilize.

Loudoun County takes the lead in all data centre markets globally; however, Prince William County, Henrico County & Hampton Roads are regions coming up as well in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Data centres contribute over $180M annually in revenue to Loudoun County every year. There are over 3,000 technology companies housed in the Loudoun County data centres.

Northern Virginia boasts a technically skilled workforce. The huge presence of government technology contracting companies has also contributed to this pool of talented workers. Data centre operators are continuing their buildouts at a rapid pace. Increasing investments in building new and upgrading existing data centres that support the provision of cloud services is among the main drivers of growth.

Other drivers of the data centre forecast include the growing use of big data analytics, Internet of Things (IoT) technology, and a growing need for data centre colocation and managed services. Technologies like virtual reality, video, social media and banking are also leading to more data generation and data consumption.

Connectivity is a vital component of the data centre business model. Whatever data comes into the data centre, must go out. The data may be brought in on 18-wheelers trucks with cabinets full of servers, with servers full of data, but it must go out over fibre optic cables, comprised of thin strands of fibreglass thinner than a human hair.

It is believed that over 70 per cent of the world’s Internet traffic passes through Loudoun County. There are several hundred networks present in this region on which traffic is changing hands, in order to get to its final destination in the most optimum path. Loudoun County boasts the most interconnected location in the Northeast and is also home to several Internet exchanges that enable multiple parties to connect with each other and exchange traffic.

Northern Virginia is where the first commercial exchange was born called MAE-East (Metropolitan Area Exchange) by Metropolitan Fiber Systems (MFS) in Tysons Corner in 1992. Since then, several connectivity-centric companies have made a mark in the Northern Virginia landscape including UUNET, PSINet, AOL & Equinix, to name a few. Terrestrial fibre construction has continued perpetually; you constantly see fibre splice trucks, & road being dug up wherein new conduit systems & terrestrial fibre optic cables are being installed underneath the roads. We have seen the installation of 3,456 strand fibre cable installed in the Northern Virginia region. The region boasts some of the country’s most fibre dense roads as depicted in this image courtesy of NEFiber.

Until recently, in order for the international Internet traffic to leave the state of Virginia and reach its destination in other parts of the world, it had to be first sent to New York, New Jersey or Florida. This is because the “landing stations” where the subsea fibre systems terminate existed only in these three states in the Eastern Seaboard. This changed in 2017 as Virginia got its first subsea cable, MAREA, connecting Bilbao, Spain to Virginia Beach.

The second subsea cable coming to Virginia, BRUSA, is expected to be completed later this year connecting the state of Virginia directly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Fortaleza and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The direct international connections will further give the data centre community in Virginia more connectivity options for low-latency fast connection to various international destinations. There are also several other subsea fibre projects under consideration for Virginia Beach.

In summary, Ashburn has attracted data centre and connectivity providers from all over the country. Every major data centre provider (retail or wholesale), every major cloud provider, every major terrestrial fibre connectivity provider is in Northern Virginia, and now subsea fibre operators are coming to the state of Virginia.

This blog was written by Vinay Nagpal, President of InterGlobix LLC. You can find the original blog, here.