The Columbus region's infrastructure, broadband network and growing data center sector are a web of private and public assets for the Big Data economy.

Amazon is bringing its data to town. The city of Dublin approved plans for the development of a data-processing center and will soon be seeking building permits, the Columbus Dispatch reported. As of early March, the e-commerce and cloud services giant had yet to confirm Dublin as one of three Columbus-area sites in the development of a $1 billion data center for subsidiary, Vadata.

>>The ABCs of data: A glossary of IT, broadband and data center terms

The project will receive roughly $81 million in state tax incentives. Dublin will provide a $6.8 million land parcel in its West Innovation District technology research park, plus a half-million dollars in performance incentives. In addition to the financial lures, Dublin and a second Vadata-owned site in Hilliard share the competitive advantages of Columbus' electric and broadband infrastructure. Amazon's will be the latest of many commercial and corporate data facilities that have stealthily cropped up in central Ohio over the past decade.

Along with IBM's new advanced analytics center in Dublin, several large enterprise data facilities developed in New Albany's Business Park and at AEP's pre-qualified data-center site in Hilliard point to Columbus' promise as an emerging data center market.

What's driving the demand for data centers? Why the Columbus region? And why do these developments often maintain a low public profile?

STRONG TECH SUPPORT

For one Columbus-area company, the story of central Ohio's data industry began in 1964. Ralph Liebert, a refrigeration man, pioneered the first prototype precision air conditioner in his garage. Recognizing the machine's potential to cleanly regulate temperature and humidity in a computing environment, IBM arranged for Liebert to debut his invention at the World Computer Conference in Philadelphia. Orders flooded in. The Liebert Corporation was founded in 1965 based on the new product.

Liebert kept pace with the emerging computer market, delving into uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems in 1983 and expanding operations globally. The company was acquired by Emerson Electric Company of St. Louis in 1987. In 2000, the company consolidated its network and computer protection divisions as Emerson Network Power.

Still headquartered in Westerville, Emerson Network Power is a leading provider of data center power, thermal management and monitoring equipment. With $6.2 billion in sales in FY 2013 and 45,000 employees in 42 manufacturing and over 255 service centers globally, nearly every major or medium-sized data center in North America deploys their systems, says Scott Barbour, executive vice president for Emerson and business leader for Emerson Network Power.

The company services data centers owned by Fortune 500 companies, cloud providers and commercial operators. "The explosion of data is causing a lot of innovation and a lot of demand for our types of products and services," Barbour says. "If you walk down Wall Street in New York City, which is a great area for us, every one of those major firms would have some piece of Liebert equipment."

Proximity to service and equipment suppliers is one of several factors that make the Columbus region appealing for data center operators.

SECURITY

The secrecy surrounding the data industry is a byproduct of its traffic in sensitive information. Network security, power redundancy and controlled, mirrored environments are crucial-and federally regulated in certain industries-standards for companies that depend on computing systems. For small, medium or large businesses, a failure in data processing or storage could have direct financial costs, as well as negative repercussions on a business's reputation. But the consequences of a failure in the critical systems of major financial, healthcare, telecom or electric providers, for example, could be catastrophic on a massive scale.

"At these higher levels, we're not talking about hacking bank accounts. We're talking about actually being able to move financial markets," says Rick Pavlak, president of Dayton-based Heapy Engineering design and consulting firm, which has an office in Columbus. Pavlak also chairs the standards committee of TC 9.9 Mission Critical Facilities, Technology Spaces and Electronic Equipment. The international committee of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Cooling Engineers develops standards related to the design, operation, maintenance and energy usage of data centers.

Heapy's design services include mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire systems as well as network, rack and cable planning for data centers. The firm's portfolio includes Cincinnati's 911 Emergency Response data center, AT&T's Chicago data center and AEP's transmission operation data center. Heapy's large financial industry clients include non-disclosure agreements in their data center contracts.

"Any of these big hacks can disrupt the economy, so technically they're considered terrorist threats," says Pavlak. Telecom clients are equally as secretive about their mission-critical facilities. "They don't want too much data out there."

Heapy is in the process of creating a data center master plan for an unnamed international company. Heapy designs centers for a 15- to 20-year life-quadruple the lifecycle of the servers housed in their reinforced walls. "It isn't because in three to five years the server burns out like a light bulb. It's because they're obsolete," says Pavlak.

POWER SUPPLY & REDUNDANCY

The data needs of commercial users change "every other minute," says Michael Berning, Heapy's senior principal and director of sustainable design. Chips in servers generate more heat as they become more effective in their computing capacity. More heat means more cooling is needed to maintain optimal temperature and humidity levels in a data facility. To achieve that environment, data centers use power loads equal to those of large manufacturers.

While a commercial office building uses between 4 and 6 kilowatts of power on an average basis, the smallest commercial data center will have a power load of three-times that per square foot, says Pavlak. Luckily for local data center operators, Columbus-based American Electric Power has more miles of extra-high-voltage transmission lines that any other electric provider in the country.

Mark James is AEP's vice president of economic and business development. He founded AEP's Qualified Data Center Site certification program three years ago. The program analyzes hundreds of characteristics to determine potential data center sites within AEP's 11-state footprint from Michigan to Texas. Data facility operators James works with in commercial hubs like New York and Chicago tell him that the power ring serving Columbus is "one of the stiffest they've seen anywhere."

AEP's system is built to service the industrial-sized power loads utilized by manufacturers. Data centers are the industrial clients of the 21st century; their high-energy usage is just denser per square foot, compressed into a smaller footprint than a large manufacturing operation.

"A lot of these data centers require redundancy. In our world, redundancy means their supply comes from two different substations. Central Ohio is very well positioned in that we have substations," James says. "If you have a problem, you're still maintaining service to the facility. It's not just adequate supply: it's highly redundant as well."

James says more companies have been asking about AEP's data center capabilities. Data centers were once a coastal activity, clustered around the tech giants out west and the financial houses to the east. In recent years, "natural disaster risk (and) increasing data need-health records going to the cloud, more and more data computational need for us as individuals-created opportunity for noncoastal places to compete for large data centers," says James.

AEP has seen growing data center demand from Columbus companies as well as large companies looking to move away from the coast. Data center development begets stronger infrastructure development and attracts broadband carriers. That, in turn, spurs further data center development, says James.

"The central Ohio community has been looked at by the five top-name technology companies you would think of because there's success here. There's a redundant electric supply and the fiber dimension," he adds.

FIBER & CONNECTIVITY

Digital information moves over fiber optic cable networks at the speed of light. The more distance between the server processing data and the end user, the longer it takes for a broadband carrier like AT&T or Time Warner to transmit that data. For Netflix watchers, that delay in loading time is an annoyance; for financial traders and online retailers, millions can be lost in those milliseconds.

"For nonfinancial activity, (Columbus is) actually very well located to be close to where you need to be to get maximum access to the network," says Ram Sastry, AEP's vice president of infrastructure and business continuity. Sastry is overseeing AEP's migration of its customer support, distribution, transmission and generation operations from its downtown headquarters to a data center in New Albany.

"We have a good ten or 15 applications that absolutely need to be up and running for the protection of and providing service to our customers," says Sastry. Continuing to house those mission-critical operations in a downtown high rise next to a river and a rail line was too much risk for AEP. The New Albany data center, which is built to the second-highest standard possible in data center construction, was the first step to mitigating risk to the company's crucial systems. The second step will be a mirrored data center, expected to come online after 2017.

Years ago AEP built a transmission operation center in New Albany and, with it, the electrical and networking infrastructure that today make the area what Sastry calls "fertile ground for data centers."

Network connectivity is important to computing environments. New Albany has excellent

Internet connectivity, says Sastry. "There's a lot of fiber we own and there's fiber that a lot of telecom companies own. They've got points-of-presence in this location. It just sort of organically happened."

AEP partnered with the city to construct NewAlbanyNet fiber optic network, which is managed by Bluemile, a carrier-neutral ISP. NewAlbanyNet connects directly to the Ohio Academic Resources Network, a broadband fiber-optic system funded by the Ohio Board of Regents. OARnet connects the state's colleges, K-12 schools, government agencies and hospital systems, and interfaces with commercial data centers. OARnet also connects directly to the Internet 2 international non-profit research and academic network.

OARnet was an Internet network created in 1987 to connect the Ohio Supercomputer Center, located on the Ohio State University campus, with other research institutions across Ohio. "OARnet was the only game in town in 1987 besides something known as CompuServe," says Pankaj Shah, executive director of OARnet and OSC.

Founded in Columbus in 1969, CompuServe provided the first commercial email and network chat capabilities to the American public. Thanks to companies like CompuServe, the Internet became ubiquitous in homes and businesses. In answer to that increasing demand, private broadband providers began installing network infrastructure in central Ohio.

OARnet serves as a state incubator for public-private Internet technology development and commercialization. In partnership with JobsOhio, OARnet offers new employers access to Ohio's research connections and allows private sector data centers to transfer data over OARnet's 100-gigabit-per-second network.

"Everything is crisscrossed. Universities use private data centers, private data centers have a need to sell their services to universities, and there are backups that state government will move to private data centers," says Shah. Ohio has a good mesh of public-private network assets, he says.

OARnet is the nation's broadband leader, says Shah. No other network is as densely populated, as far reaching and fast. At 100 Gbps, you could transfer 80 million file cabinets of data daily, simultaneously download e-books for Ohio's 1.8 million school children in two minutes, or transmit 8.5 million electronic medical records in 60 seconds. Smartphone data on OARnet can be sent 50,000 times faster than average mobile data.

"When you sell Ohio outside to the private sector, to bring industry into Ohio, to attract them, these assets are helpful," says Shah. A few years ago, Shah says, there was a data center shortage in the state. Today, the data center market in Ohio has grown tremendously.

Per capita, Ohio leads the nation in fiber optic broadband. Central Ohio, in particular, has an added infrastructure benefit. Columbus FiberNet is an underground fiber conduit system that circles the city of Columbus. FiberNet allows broadband providers to lay fiber optic cable without the expense of installing ductwork in the public right of way.

It's a feature that has increased competition in the Columbus carrier market. Columbus FiberNet is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Fishel Company. The city of Columbus uses the duct system for its network between buildings, traffic signals and other municipal facilities.

Columbus FiberNet becomes DubLink in north Columbus. Bill Verhoff is operations manager for both conduits. Access to providers or access to fiber at a lower rate because of a cable-ready infrastructure is a huge draw for large enterprises and data centers, Verhoff says.

"Our route was strategically built to pass by the major data centers and the major business parks," says Verhoff. During his three years in the position, he's seen the Columbus data market grow stronger.

"I think of it as a great economic development tool, because data on a daily basis continues to be more and more important," says Verhoff. "Being close to that data and having an infrastructure to handle all the data that's needed on a day-to-day basis is important."