In the Blink of an Eye: Five Questions for Data Center Developer Wes Swenson
In 2017, Wes Swenson sold his C7 data center business, which operated on 17 acres in Bluffdale, UT. He’s now returning to the Utah market, with the announcement of the 100-acre Novva, Inc. site in West Jordan. The campus will be Utah's largest purpose-built, multi-tenant campus for enterprise clients. Backed by the CIM Group private equity firm in Los Angeles, Novva will invest over $1 billion in the next several years, spanning four phases, totaling over 1.5 million square feet (sf) of data center space.
The first phase, currently under construction, consists of a substation and a 300,000 square foot Data Center Hall, and an additional 80,000 square feet of office space. The data center will be available for client deployments in early 2021. According to Swenson, who is Novva’s founder and CEO, this will be one of the largest single data center campuses in the Western U.S.
We caught up with Wes to find out more about the data center industry and what this significant “hyperscale” project means for Utah.
What does “hyperscale” denote?
WS: It’s the ability to scale in acreage, power capacity, and the size of the facilities in a short time frame. A business might need 1 megawatts (MW) today and 4MW in four years. It’s difficult for a single company to raise the capital and take the risk on an expansion of that size.
Only a few years ago, if your data center operations were 2MW, you were considered massive. Now all the online commerce we’re seeing is driving tremendous growth. We’ll see even more with autonomous cars, genetic testing, contract tracing, and so forth. 30MW is considered large scale today. Anticipating and accommodating that kind of growth is what hyperscale means.
The Microsofts, Amazons, and Facebooks are all building their own data centers. We’re aiming at the next tier, mostly companies in the Fortune 1000 and government entities. These are enterprises that are not big enough to build, or don’t have a core competency to manage their own data centers, but who are too big for a typical data center built in the last decade. That typical data center is about 20,000 square feet. We’ll have 1.5 million sf. There’s a very large market for us in this space.
How is latency driving the market?
Latency is very important and also drives the need for hyperscalability. It takes a human about 300 to 400 milliseconds (MS) to blink. Financial service companies are demanding faster transaction speeds. Nowadays transactions can go from one part of the planet to another in 100 to 200 MS.
Looking forward to autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, these operations are going to demand super low latency in the range of 10-20 milliseconds. The “cloud” in which that kind of response time takes place will be supported by data centers such as the one we’re building.
I should mention Utah’s advantages in latency. Fiber generally follows freeway systems in our country, and we’re in the unique position of having fiber running east and west, and north and south. That’s not the case in many of the large cities in the Western U.S. Here in Utah we can send a transaction to the East Coast in less than 50 MS, and the West Coast in less than 20 MS. We’ve got a central location in the Western U.S.
What are the one or two main aspects of the project that you’d like our EDCUtah readers to understand?
There are a couple of things to understand about Utah and about data centers. Back in the early days of the Internet, data centers were built where the people and companies were, that is, near big metro areas. The Internet relies on long-haul fiber optic cables. Utah didn’t have the population density but we had the traversing fiber because of our freeways. Now 15 to 20 years later, you can put a data center just about anywhere, and that plays to Utah’s advantages, of which there are quite a few. The crossroads of the West doesn’t just apply to railroads.
Utah, for example, is on the fiber network that connects San Francisco and Denver. This gives us excellent latency or response time as I mentioned before.
We are also low for the risk of hurricanes, dust storms, or tornadoes. We do have earthquake risk, which is why we’re building this new data center on the bench of West Jordan. It has one of the lowest liquefaction levels in the area.
Companies also look for a good workforce, which we have. And they look for access. You can catch a flight to Salt Lake City quickly if you need to visit your data center to deal with an issue. And Utah is an awesome place to build if you know how to navigate the market, which I do since I’ve been here for 54 years.
Your general contractor, Layton Construction, has an animated video that makes the facility look like a world-class convention center, not a data center. What is behind those design elements?
We have the confidence of our investors to build a world-class data center, and that includes our offices, design studios, and health facilities. We currently do not carry any debt, and are approaching the market with a long-term view. I’m very determined on the type of product and vision to build one of the world’s best data centers. We want the most discerning clients to trust Novva in all facets of our design and operations.
Most data centers are built with a focus on the resiliency of the infrastructure, and not the entire experience. In contrast, when you go through security and into this lobby, you’ll see a high quality, beautiful space with a Euro minimalist look. People love beautiful buildings that are not just the functional, but are warm, clean, modern, and designed to age gracefully. As part of this project we’re including 80,000 square feet of Class A+ office space for our clients and employees.
At C7, 90% of our clients were from outside Utah and they often had some stereotypical ideas about our state. The space we’re building here could be at home in Milan or New York. It will build confidence that we know what we’re doing here. This is important because a client is trusting a data center provider to keep their gear up 100% of the time. It is not a responsibility we take lightly.
The physical site supports that brand message. It’s purpose built, with details from the floor, walls, and campus design. We have small, but important details throughout the buildings, such as 12-inch thick floors, 14-inch thick walls, electromagnetic pulse protection paint, and in the near future we plan to introduce robotic monitoring and security. We’ll provide visiting clients with hybrid vehicles, equipped with ski and bike racks, as well as ski and national park passes, so they can enjoy their time in Utah. This attention to detail will let NOVVA stand out from our competition.
How are you designing the site for sustainability?
Water is a challenge in Utah since we’re in a cold, high altitude desert and the water we do have needs to often be treated to soften it for mechanical equipment. I’m always a proponent of getting away from using a lot of water to cool a data center. At Novva we will implement a near zero water cooling system. The system utilizes our ambient air, filters it, and utilizes a closed loop coil unit.
We’re adding solar arrays to all roofs which should give us 15 to 30 MW production. We will continue to work with Rocky Mountain Power on other green power alternatives.
We’re using a lot of locally produced materials to reduce transportation impacts and we’re using all local contractors who are following cleaner construction practices. The headquarters will also embrace local and unique Utah materials, such as honeycomb calcite.
Our diesel back-up generators are using selective reduction catalytic technology to reduce emissions when we do have to run them for testing, or for an outage. Our goal is to keep the lowest environmental impact possible.
Our goal is conservation, and to be as sustainable as a data center can be. We are constantly researching new technology to lower our impact on the environment.
Bonus question - What’s the biggest difference between this “product” and what you had with C7?
There are significant differences between C7, and the new Novva. One is scale, we have 100 acres to work with, which allows us to accommodate some of the largest footprints in the west. Second is that our focus at C7 was multi-tenant retail colocation, and here at Novva, we have the ability to serve what I call “Wholocation.” Wholocation is a product category we have defined as larger multi-tenant retail colocation (250KW+), all the way up to wholesale clients (2MW to 20MW) that may not need services at the retail level, but require the scale.
Third, our location in West Jordan is what I would consider to be the primary data center cluster in Utah, with several enterprises having already located operations in the immediate vicinity, which allows us great fiber connectivity.
Finally, with the foresight of the Utah Legislature, sales tax abatement for Enterprise data centers was passed in 2016, and in 2020, under Senate bill 0114, this was expanded to apply to leasees of data centers. This puts Utah on equal footing with our more competitive markets in Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. That change in the tax law allows us to make an investment of this scale with lower risk.
The tax change will bring in other investments in data centers. We don’t mind competition, and I have a head start here. We’re building the railroads of the future and bringing a new industry to Utah.
From EDCUtah’s standpoint, that tax change is also an important message to convey to site selectors. It’s changing the game in Utah. So I say to the legislature, “Good job.”
For more information, visit https://www.novva.com