With an insatiable demand for datacentres, some are worried Illinois can’t keep up

  • TECH
  • Thursday, 26 Jul 2018

Quality Technology Services site director Toby Hallmer walks through 40,000 square feet of vacant space intended for future use at the data center, which is housed in the Sun-Times' former printing plant, on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Entering the datacentre that occupies the former Chicago Sun-Times' printing facility is like walking through the set of a James Bond film. 

There's a 10-foot-tall steel fence encircling the property on the Lower West Side. There are gates, buzzers, a security desk, cameras and doors that use fingerprints as their key. The final entry into the room full of locked server cages requires an iris scan. 

Spurred by society's ever-increasing dependence on the cloud, demand for datacentres is insatiable. The Chicago area ranks third in the country for datacentre capacity, but an increasing number of states, including neighbouring Iowa, are wooing the facilities with tax incentives. 

In contrast, there are no incentives available in Illinois specifically for datacentres, which can bring economic benefits like improved power grids and telecommunications systems. Those upgrades in turn help attract more companies and more jobs to Chicago. Some worry the lack of incentives could hinder industry growth in a state that's a hub of internet connectivity.

QTS data center, formerly the Sun-Times printing plant, at 2800 S. Ashland Ave. in Chicago, Ill. on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune/TNS)
The QTS datacentre, formerly the Sun-Times printing plant, at 2800 S. Ashland Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. — Chicago Tribune/TNS

“Illinois will get left behind if they don't do something about it,” said Butch Goldi, an executive vice president of sales for Quality Technology Services, which owns the datacentre in the old Sun-Times facility. 

For several years, Chicago's supply of datacentre capacity has increased with the demand. Measured in megawatts, capacity grew by more than 60% – adding enough to power more than 70,000 homes for a month – between 2015 and 2017, according to information from real estate firm CBRE. The only markets in the country with more datacentre inventory are Northern Virginia, home to many of Amazon's datacentres, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. 

Chicago developed as an attractive market for datacentres for the same reason it became a hub for railroads: its central location. Much of the fibre optic cable the Internet runs on was laid along railroad tracks, and Chicago acted as the connector between east and west. Plus, the city has reliable electricity and isn't at risk for the hurricanes or earthquakes that threaten the coasts. 


World Business Chicago, the city's economic development arm, touts datacentres as one of the perks of locating in Chicago, said Dennis Vicchiarelli, executive vice president of business development for the public-private partnership. 

“Today, it's airplanes, it's railroads, and it's transportation via highway, but it's also fibre and datacentres,” he said. 

The city has worked to accommodate datacentres, updating regulations to allow on-site fuel storage for backup generators, for example, Vicchiarelli said. 

The state needs to do its part as well, said Benjamin Brockschmidt, vice president of policy for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Datacentres are economically beneficial to the areas where they locate, adding construction and contracting jobs, plus permanent positions at the facilities, he said. They also produce local infrastructure improvements such as power and telecommunications access, which can benefit other businesses in the area. 

The Chicago area is attracting co-location datacentres, facilities like the one in the old Sun-Times building, where companies can house their servers. But the tech giants, such as Google and Amazon, have not put their datacentre facilities in Illinois, Brockschmidt said.

“We're attracting the bare minimum that the market is willing to fill,” he said. “We're not attracting the maximum here that we could because we've limited our potential.” 

Illinois lawmakers have introduced bills to create tax credits for datacentres in the past, but they've stalled. The state's Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity recognises the potential the facilities hold for Illinois' economy, spokeswoman Jacquelyn Reineke said. The department often helps datacentres figure out how established incentive programs can work for them, she said. 

The state entered into an agreement with RagingWire Data Centres in December 2016 that could be worth US$1.4mil (RM5.69mil) over a decade. The agreement was part of the EDGE programme, short for Economic Development for a Growing Economy, which provides tax breaks for companies that promise to create jobs in Illinois. RagingWire was required to create 51 full-time jobs and invest US$176mil (RM715.31mil) into an Itasca facility. 

Rene Martinez, a data center tech operations technician, helps deliver connectivity for a customer on Tuesday, July 10, 2018 at the QTS data center, formerly the Sun-Times printing plant, at 2800 S. Ashland Ave. in Chicago, Ill. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune/TNS)
A datacentre tech operations technician helping deliver connectivity for a customer at the QTS datacentre, formerly the Sun-Times printing plant in Chicago. — Chicago Tribune/TNS

The state is working on a few other datacentre projects as well, but Reineke declined to comment on the pending projects. 

“We're definitely open to finding a way to facilitate their growth,” she said. 

These days, businesses need more computing capabilities and therefore more server space, said Todd Bateman, who leads CBRE's datacentre solutions agency practice. Companies that have housed their servers on their own properties for years are moving them to datacentres, seeking out their security, connectivity, a reliable power supply and around-the-clock support. 

In response, the firms that build datacentres are making them more efficient and offering larger chunks of space for servers. New players have entered the Chicago market to respond to the demand. 

Quality Technology Services opened the datacentre in the former Sun-Times printing plant about two years ago, and the Overland Park, Kansas-based company is expanding. It has about 24 megawatts of power available now – enough to fuel more than 19,500 homes for a month – and is working with Commonwealth Edison to build a new substation on-site that's expected to increase capacity to 125 megawatts by the end of 2019. 

The data hall that houses cages of servers in Quality Technology Services' facility – the one that requires an iris scan to enter – is filling up. The servers, routers and other equipment, with their blinking lights and erupting wires, are stacked in rows and locked in cages. On a recent morning, two neon-vested workers were building out a cage for a new customer. The company has another data hall ready for customers and has space on the property to construct another building. 

Peapod moved some of its servers into the facility in November, said Rick Hanzelin, the online grocery delivery company's vice-president of information technology infrastructure. The Chicago-based company had servers at its facilities around the country, including at its former headquarters in Skokie. As Peapod grew, it would add datacentres at its office buildings or warehouses. 

Peapod needed to move its systems to a space that would allow it to expand quickly, Hanzelin said. Quality Technology Services' facility provides that, he said, and there's no worrying about the electrical grid or power outages like there was when the company housed its own servers. 

“You know how summer storms move through here,” Hanzelin said. “There were multiple times when the generator would have to kick on. That's the kind of stuff we want to let the professionals handle as we go forward.” 

Chicago's position as a hub for connectivity also is demonstrated in the datacentre at 350 E. Cermak Road. Besides servers that companies have located there, the facility houses major telecommunications carriers, such as Sprint and Verizon, and other networks. Customers that need to connect to those carriers or networks come to the South Loop facility to do so. 

It's like the central nervous system of the internet, said John Stewart, senior vice-president of investor relations of Digital Realty, the San Francisco-based real estate investment trust that owns the facility. The century-old building has the bones to support all the servers and equipment. It was originally built for printing presses that kicked out phone books and Sears catalogues. 

That's a common method among datacentre developers: Take old buildings or sites that can support massive amounts of equipment and transform them into a hub of power and connectivity. In another example, an investor is planning to convert the site of an old coal-fired power plant in Hammond into a datacentre. The Indiana Economic Development Corp approved an incentive of up to US$9mil (RM36.57bil) for that facility, based on an investment of nearly US$36.2mil (RM147.12mil). 

Other facilities are a bit more incognito. Digital Realty owns nine other datacentres in the Chicago area, including three on a campus in Elk Grove Village that from the outside look like warehouses. 

Agricultural media company Farm Journal recently relocated its servers to one of those facilities. The company's previous data facility in its former Philadelphia headquarters amounted to a rack of old equipment in a closet. 

“It wasn't a proper datacentre,” said John MacMillan, director of applications and information technology at the company, now based in Lenexa, Kansas. “There were times when the network in the building would just go down and you'd just have to sit through it and wait.” 

The added network reliability was a priority for Farm Journal in its server relocation, MacMillan said. 

The move was also about reliable electricity and cooling, and “sleeping well at night knowing the lights will be on”, he said. “Everything will be running.” — Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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