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

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