Data centers are often gray, unmarked buildings with high fences and lots of security.
One of the largest data centers in the world, the QTS Data Center, is on the Westside of Atlanta – near the Fulton County Jail.
Burton Goldi is executive vice president of sales at QTS. During a tour, he uses his eyes to open the door.
“We’re in the mantrap here, so I’m about to iris scan into the data center so it’s going to identify me by my iris,” Goldi said. “And then it unlocks the door for us and allows us to get in.”
The QTS Data Center is about 1 million square feet, slightly bigger than Centennial Olympic Park.
It has more than 300 clients leasing space to keep their data here: from small law firms to large credit card companies.
Information like credit card numbers and chat histories are stored here in locked black cages. Inside each cage are stacks of rectangular black boxes. These are servers with lots of information inside and long cables running along the back.
“First rule of owning a data center: you never talk about your data center,” said Steve Nichols, Georgia’s chief technology officer.
Nichols said that’s just a joke, but the industry is secretive. And for good reason: it’s a critical business function.
When people talk about “the cloud” where companies keep information and where your data magically lives, they’re usually talking about a data center.
Parts of this center have invisible infrared sensors that can detect if you’re trespassing.
“So what happens — it’s got a grid of infrared above and a grid of infrared below — so if someone penetrates the environment, it notifies our security department,” Goldi explained.
And these centers are cold and loud. Similar to how the fan in your computer keeps it from crashing, air-conditioning units and large tanks of water keep the servers at the data center from overheating.
“This is a chiller plant,” Goldi explained. “You ever been to a QuikTrip and you buy a Slurpee? That’s the temperature of this water that’s sitting out in a tank.”
The data is stored in these server rooms. Water chillers keep the place cool, and the power supply and backup power generators keep the place running. Of course, there are backups for those backups.
There are at least 50 data center facilities in Georgia, making it the eighth fastest-growing market in the U.S., according to Georgia State University’s Fiscal Research Center.
Wendy McArthur is managing director at JLL’s Data Center Solutions Group in Atlanta, where she helps with the sale and purchase of data centers. She said the number of centers is exploding as companies grow and need to lease space in the centers to store and more securely back up their data.
“Where were the servers to begin with 20 years ago? Well, they were in office buildings, right? And maybe today, they’re not as safe and secure in office buildings,” McArthur said. “And there’s a lot of little data center closets and rooms that need to come out of some of these office buildings.”
She said Georgia offers lots of land and cheap electricity as well as a good location.
Dave Burns is vice president of network technology at QTS.
“Atlanta is fiber-rich,” Burns said. “We have the presence of access for all the major carriers in Atlanta.”
Nichols, the state’s chief technology officer, said you can think of the internet like a highway.
“A short drive you’re going to stay on surface streets,” Nichols said. “But the longer your drive, the more likely you’re going to get on an interstate where you can travel fast. One of the demand drivers in Atlanta is to be close to your customers, but also sitting on top of one of the main internet trunks, it helps everything.”
He said it helps that Atlanta sits right on all the major fiber lines. This allows the data centers to be close to their major customer bases in the Southeast, including the Atlanta area.
Though data centers don’t employ many full-time staff members, state lawmakers want to lure more of them here through tax breaks on computer equipment purchased or leased by the data center.
The industry said it contributes to local tax revenues, and Georgia is the only state in the Southeast without a lucrative tax break.
During a recent House committee hearing, the bill’s main sponsor, state Rep. Trey Kelley, said Georgia needs tax breaks to stay competitive overall.
“The presence of data centers in our state will help us expand our connectivity to rural broadband and also be a tool used by our economic developers to help attract new business to our state,” Kelley said.
“Once it’s up and running, it doesn’t take very much staff to run one of these things because all the systems are designed to be automated. But it’s a massive construction project,” Nichols said.
Goldi, with the QTS data center, said sure, there are only about 75 full-time employees operating the West Atlanta data center, “but it’s the customers that we bring to the table.”
With more than 300 clients at this one data center, he said the number of people employed because of the data center adds up quickly.
But even without tax breaks in place, data centers and companies looking to lease space in these centers are choosing Atlanta.
Facebook is one of the newest companies looking to set up in metro Atlanta. It plans to invest $750 million in a new data center in Stanton Springs in Newton County.