Billings is getting a taste of new business from the global computing revolution, but evidence of one new industry is largely invisible, hidden behind 2,000-pound rocks, an army of security cameras, biometric fingerprinting and a “man trap” turnstile.
This data center industry is NorthWestern Energy’s best friend, according to Andy York, chief executive at iConnect Montana, which runs data centers at Granite Towers in downtown Billings and another opened three years ago in a former grocery store at the corner of Central Avenue and Moore Lane.
“Oh, they just love me,” he said. “The Central data center racks up power bills of $18,000 per month.”
About one-fourth of the 47,000-square-foot building is occupied, and when it is running at full capacity the center will consume 10 megawatts of power, about as much as one of the area’s three oil refineries, York said.
The state of Montana runs a data center through iConnect’s downtown location and a third, Parsec Data Management, is located in the TransTech Center on the Billings West End.
IConnect has about 20 customers at its downtown fiber hotel.
Two West Coast companies and one from the East Coast, store data at Central Avenue, York said, which has one of Montana’s largest two-way satellite dishes.
The mighty Amazon.com doesn’t mind telling the world where its numerous data centers are located, York said, but he cannot name any clients or list annual revenues because they demand anonymity.
But York said he just beat out “the big boys” to land a fresh fish from the Seattle area, a social media company similar to Facebook or MySpace.
“They are going to be one of the highest users of high-band in Billings and in all of Montana,” he said.
Once past the 32 security cameras, human security, a “man trap” and biometric fingerprinting identification devices, a client can only gain access to his own area.
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The client areas house hundreds of cables, humming servers that store massive amounts of data and routers that push the information out to the satellite and up to the World Wide Web. Massive air conditioners and state-of-the-art fire detection systems protect the sensitive equipment.
One of the world’s most secure sites is at SuperNAP in Las Vegas, which Network World bills as the world’s largest data center. This complex is protected by a $2 million blast wall, the latest security equipment and at least three armed guards constantly patrolling the grounds.
York said he’s competing against centralized “cloud computing.”
Some companies want to own their servers and store them at secure data centers like iConnect. The disadvantage is that the equipment is expensive to maintain and must be upgraded every few years.
Other companies prefer storage services on "the cloud," renting space from giant companies such as Google, Apple and Amazon.
York markets to companies that want to own their own storage servers.
“I love server huggers, or people who can’t let go of the hardware,” York said. “They want to own it. It’s an asset and they don’t have to rely on Amazon or face sudden price hikes.”
Three Montana telecommunications companies — Nemont Telephone of Scobey, Triangle Communications in Havre and Northern Telephone Cooperative in Sunburst — have spent nearly $10 million building iConnect, said York, who describes his job as an Internet landlord.
“We just have to make sure they get clean power. It’s a secure environment and we keep it dry and cool,” he said. “Heat is our enemy.”
Massive flooding brought on by Hurricane Sandy that swamped key data centers along the East Coast makes his Montana pitch easier, York said.
“We have fairly low-cost power, no sales tax and we’re in a 100-year flood plain,” he said. “You mix it all up in this neat little soup and we win.”