Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Brief History of the Internet in Northern Virginia

Earlier today I happened to see a short piece from the Bloomberg Businessweek "The Year Ahead: 2016" issue, titled The Best Places to Build Data Centers. The text said the following:

Cloud leaders including, Microsoft, Google, IBM, and upstart DigitalOcean are spending tens of billions of dollars to construct massive data centers around the world. Microsoft alone puts its total bill at $15 billion. There are two main reasons for the expansion: First, the companies have to set up more servers near the biggest centers of Internet traffic growth. Second, they increasingly have to wrestle with national data-privacy laws and customer preferences, either by storing data in a user’s home country, or, in some cases, avoiding doing just that.

The article featured several maps, including the one at left. It notes data centers in "Virginia" because "the Beltway has massive data needs." That may be true, but it does not do justice to the history of the Internet in Northern Virginia (NoVA), nor does it explain why there are so many data centers in NoVA. I want to briefly note why there is so much more to this story.

In brief, there are so many data centers in NoVA because, 25 years or so ago, early Internet companies located in the area and also decided to connect their networks in NoVA. Key players included America Online (AOL), which built its headquarters in Loudoun County in the early 1990s. About the same time, in 1992, Internet pioneers from several local companies decided to connect their networks and build what became known as MAE-East. A year later, the National Science Foundation awarded a contract designating MAE-East as one of four Network Access Points. Later in the 1990s Equinix arrived and contributed to the growth in data center and network connectivity that continues through the present.

Essentially, NoVA demonstrated real-life "network effects" -- with networks cross-connecting to each other in Ashburn and Loudoun County, it made sense for new players to gain access to those connections. Companies built data centers there because the network connections offered the best performance for their customers. The "Beltway" and its "massive data needs" were not the reason.

If you would like to know more, I recommend reading Andrew Blum's book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Yes, Blum is referring to those "tubes," which he investigates via in-person visits to notable Internet locations and refreshing historical research. Along the way, Blum charts the growth of NoVA as an Internet hub, in some ways, "the" Internet hub.

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