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SXSW: How Fort Worth became a data center hub

AUSTIN – If you use Facebook, your statuses, photos and messages sit in a data center, the physical manifestation of the ever elusive “cloud” where information is stored off physical devices.

And, if you’re a Dallas-Fort Worth Facebook user, your information could be stored right in your backyard at the Alliance-based Facebook data center.

At the Fort Worth Now display at Austin’s South by Southwest festival, Tim Bright with T5 Data Centers, Matt Vanderzanden with Facebook and Mayor Betsy Price participated in a panel discussion on why Fort Worth is an ideal home for hyperscale data storage.

Panel moderator Reid Goetz of Hillwood Properties pointed out that more data have been created in the past two years than in the history of mankind, and that means that the need to store the exploding data stream is also exploding. Hillwood’s AllianceTexas development in far North Fort Worth is the site of Facebook’s new data center as well as one planned by T5.

In data centers, a hyper-secure group of networked computers or networked servers store everything from Facebook interactions to photos taken on smart phones. Data centers may vary in size, but not in their need for resources such as water, electricity and ample land for potential expansion.

The 150-acre Facebook data center campus came to Fort Worth officials as a secretive project. Price recalls that two men came to her office several years ago with little to no explanation of their proposed project.

“We knew they were coming, probably a data center, but we didn’t know who it was. Two guys came in – first names only,” Price said. “Very unidentifiable logo and a cellphone number on the business card.”

They turned out to be envoys from Facebook, whose first building in AllianceTexas went online last year, with more to come.

Both Bright and Vanderzanden said Fort Worth has both the resources and flexibility to be an ideal data center hub. Flexibility proved to be paramount in Facebook’s decision to come to Fort Worth after some last-minute concerns arose.

“We knew that if we could get Mayor Price on the phone we could probably clear some last-minute hurdles,” Vanderzanden said. “These are maybe the most efficient data centers in the world, but they still do need the water, the waste water and the energy.”

Additionally, Hillwood would have to find a place to house the center.

“We knew there was an exciting buzz about this and Hillwood was very excited about where to put them, but we had to find the right site for them because of the energy requirements — they are water-cooled, the whole plant, and they wanted wind power. So we had to find a site that had a redundancy of water,” Price said.

Today the Alliance campus employs construction contractors, technology experts and more.

“For each $1 million we spend in operating costs we see 10 to 13 jobs open in the community. It’s really about what a little economic engine these data centers can turn out to be,” Vanderzanden said.

For Facebook, the partnership also meant a fair amount of community involvement other than its economic impact, according to Price. Which was easy for Facebook given its philosophy.

“Not every data center developer thinks about things in the way we do, but for Facebook it really is about engaging deeply in the community,” Vanderzanden said “We want to make sure we’re investing in our home as much as we can.”

There is a general understanding of the need for data centers, but even for Vanderzanden imagining the scale of necessary data storage was difficult.

“When I joined Facebook about six and a half years ago, I thought we’d do maybe one or two of these data centers,” he said. “[Fort Worth] was the first place we decided to go to a five-building region.”

At completion the Facebook data center uses 150 megawatts of power, enough to power 75,000 homes, according to Goetz.

The massive centers are still run by people, however, making an educated workforce invaluable. Creating workers for the jobs of tomorrow is something Price says is a Fort Worth focus after welcoming T5 Data Centers as well as Facebook.

“We’ve seen that nationally where big data centers come to a community and local community colleges come together and develop a curriculum focused on [the data industry],” Bright said.

Price believes growth will remain necessary moving forward as cities and other municipalities continue to use data in new, innovative ways.

“You start thinking about the use of data just for cities to study traffic patterns, for instance, that has to be collected and stored — it’s incredible. We’re going to need more and more storage and faster storage, too,” Price said.

Fort Worth has poised itself to continue to be a hub for this growth.

“I think the way Fort Worth approached us and interacted with us has it well poised to get other businesses on the infrastructure side coming in. I don’t see a ton of obvious opportunities to improve in leaps and bounds, so just keep going,” Vanderzanden said.

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