Huntsville and Birmingham are the sites of major data center expansions by Georgia-based DC BLOX — colocation facilities that put the state’s most concentrated clusters of technology companies in strategic location to their data.
DC BLOX, which builds data centers in underserved markets across the Southeast, supports area businesses of all sizes by connecting them with high-speed optical networks and hosting cloud services to efficiently grow their technology infrastructure.
With data centers in Atlanta, Chattanooga and now Huntsville, DC BLOX is currently building a new data center facility on 27 acres near downtown Birmingham. The former Trinity Steel site will be DC BLOX’s flagship location, spanning more than 200,000 square feet at full capacity and creating a multi-use campus for enterprise, hyperscale cloud, Software as a Service (SaaS), government, network and content providers.
“High speed connectivity is very important to the value proposition we provide our customers,” says Bill Thomson, who leads marketing and product management for DC BLOX. “Our data centers represent a great way for customers and businesses to get the kind of connectivity they’ll need to grow that they might have difficulty getting on their own.”
Alabama was attractive to DC BLOX for several reasons, starting first with the state’s growing, high-tech economy. Because Alabama had a limited number of existing data centers, Thomson says the company began aggressively targeting both Birmingham and Huntsville for expansion.
DC BLOX couldn’t find the land or facilities it needed in Birmingham initially, so the company turned its focus to Huntsville instead.
“We ended up building in Huntsville first, which we also felt was a very growing and dynamic city — a very high-tech city in need of the kind of services we wanted to provide,” Thomson says.
Phase I of the Huntsville data center, built using lean construction techniques in 22 weeks, operates at 333 Diamond Drive N.W., near Redstone Arsenal, Marshall Space Flight Center and Cummings Research Park. The facility covers 9,000 square feet of expandable data center and 3,600 square feet of office space.
When all phases of the project are complete, the Huntsville center will expand four-fold to include 36,000 square feet of data hall space.
A ‘win-win’ for Huntsville
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle says DC BLOX’s decision to open a data center in Huntsville is proof the city’s economic plan is working.
“Ten years ago, we created a diversification strategy that leveraged all the technical know-how we have here and found new applications in new industries,” he says. “Companies (today) are generating vast amounts of data from consumers and business. The data needs to be stored somewhere, and that need for storage is only going to increase.”
Battle says data centers are capital intensive, which produces significant tax revenues for the cities where they operate. And the jobs — while not numerous — provide high wages to employees.
Because Huntsville is rich in high-tech companies, Battle says many businesses want to be located near their data, so they can address issues quickly if something goes wrong.
“I’m proud we are able to deliver a solution for existing industry while also generating jobs and new revenue for the city,” he says. “It’s a win-win.”
DC BLOX will deploy the same design and lean construction techniques it used in Huntsville for its facility in Titusville, a historic neighborhood in Birmingham. Phase I construction began last September with the promise of delivering 31,000 square feet and up to 5 megawatts of customer capacity by early 2019.
Speed to market is key in keeping up with the latest technology challenges, says DC BLOX Vice President of Design and Construction Carlton Parker. “It’s imperative we get up and running as quickly as possible,” he says. “The process we employ with pre-cast building enables that and gives us a lot of flexibility.”
DC BLOX’s Birmingham and Huntsville centers are “colocation” facilities, allowing providers to get the high-density power they need within minutes — not weeks or months. Companies also can choose to pay only for the services they use or opt for a fixed-fee and service structure for more predictable billing.
The Birmingham data center represents the single largest project investment in Jefferson County in recent memory. The $785 million development will span 10 years and have an estimated economic impact of $99 million on Alabama.
‘Music to our ears’
When DC BLOX began its site search in the Magic City, Birmingham Business Alliance President and CEO Brian Hilson says the company wanted to be near downtown Birmingham, the Innovation District, UAB and other entrepreneurial activity where early-stage, advanced technology companies are thriving.
“That was music to our ears because it would be great to have them anywhere, but especially at a location that would be part of our innovation and technology activities rather than being disconnected from that part of our local economy,” he says.
Hilson says landing such a significant project is a “shot in the arm” for the Titusville community, which reportedly competed against dozens of other markets across the Southeast for the multi-purpose facility.
Thomson says DC BLOX’s modular design and lean construction techniques can meet the unique needs of a larger enterprise or content provider, making it competitive in the growing network and connectivity space.
“As we expand, we can do quite a bit of building to suit to customize to a particular enterprise’s needs and still build it efficiently,” he says.
Thomson says DC BLOX data centers don’t directly employ lots of workers but enable other companies to expand IT tech usage and hire new staff. The company is always hiring, but requires only a limited number of employees for the first phase of its new Huntsville facility.
Hilson says about 20 workers will staff the new Birmingham center when Phase I of construction is complete, with the potential of up to 100 new employees over the next decade.
He is confident Birmingham’s large, diverse labor pool is prepared to meet workforce needs of DC BLOX and other technology employers — but acknowledges there’s still work to do at the state and local levels.
“Employer expectations are ever changing,” he says. “Workers, trainers and educators have to be more knowledgeable about changes that are taking place in the economy and specific workforce needs and skill requirements so they stay abreast.”
Because Google and Facebook also are building data centers in Alabama, Thomson says it can be difficult to find the high-skilled talent they need locally to staff DC BLOX facilities. The company must occasionally hire workers across the region to fill important staff positions within its centers.
Thomson says DC BLOX has considered joining some of its competitors to partner with workforce development organizations in Alabama to create specific training for data center employees.
“I know I’ve already reached out to those organizations to try to get some conversations going,” he says. “We look forward to those kinds of opportunities.”
Lucy Berry DeButy is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Decatur.