I read with great interest that Facebook is coming to North Carolina. I wondered, will they open an office in Charlotte, near the financial centers, or near the Research Triangle Park, near the home of three great research universities? Or perhaps in Asheville, the east coast's answer to Santa Fe. Or perhaps in Wilmington, near the coast and all of its opportunities.
I was a bit surprised when I read that Facebook was headed to Forest City. Nothing against the town, just seemed a little out of the way. Then I realized I'd been "data centered" again.
In the last year North Carolina has become a mecca of data centers. While we celebrate these companies opening new facilities here, we need to take a hard look at what business we are attracting and why. Also, why is it that we in North Carolina continue to graduate thousands of undergraduates and graduates from very well respected universities (Duke, UNC, NC State, Wake Forest, Davidson...) yet the reason Facebook and Apple open sites in North Carolina is, wait for it, plentiful and cheap electricity.
We were excited last year to see the opening of a Google facility near Hickory, only to discover that it would be a data center. Don't get me wrong, the construction jobs on these projects add a tremendous boost to locations that have been struggling economically. But over time these data centers employ between 40 and 60 people, or about the same number as a retail establishment. Sure, they pay a little better but there's little growth opportunity. Even if we wanted to become the state of data centers, we aren't creating any critical mass or knowledge around data centers.
What's interesting is that these companies are targeting North Carolina for exactly the wrong reasons. Sure, we have plentiful land and cheap electricity, and one suspects a reasonable data transmission grid. But if all of these data centers are here, what are we in the state doing to treat them as learning opportunities? Certainly there's about to be a lot of data flowing into, and out of, North Carolina. If as conjectured Apple's facility is meant to be the basis for it's cloud computing capabilities, the streams of data entering and exiting that facility will be tremendous. What can all of our high tech research scientists and professors learn from that? Can we gain more knowledge about the transmission of data, storage of data? How do our universities capitalize on the proximity of one of the largest cloud computing facilities? Could we participate in research that reduces the power requirements of such a facility, to make it more sustainable? Or will we simply watch these data centers and be glad for the 50 jobs?
Everyone, at every level of experience and knowledge in this state needs access to good jobs at good salaries. We're happy the data centers are here. We need to ask ourselves several questions, however:
- Why aren't we capitalizing on the move of data centers into the state to create a "creative community" around all aspects of data centers?
- What happens when the cost of electricity rises and North Carolina isn't as attractive for large sites consuming lots of electricity?
- Why aren't companies locating here for the brainpower that's available? Why isn't the brainpower locally getting engaged with the opportunities these data centers present?
- How do we demonstrate that North Carolina has much more than empty land and cheap electricity to offer? How do we create the conditions for small and large businesses to be created here and to want to relocate here, to take advantage of cheap land, cheap electricity and incredible human capital as well?
There's something missing - a gap in our realities - when we welcome a Google, an Apple or a Facebook and a data center is the answer. We've missed a bigger opportunity and so has Apple, Google and Facebook. So, our next steps should be to make lemonade out of lemons and become the experts at data centers - not just their construction, but their operations, their sustainability and the issues of data transmission, which are certain to grow. With plenty of study and research, perhaps North Carolina can become a center of expertise in cloud computing, but only if we partner with these firms to learn from these data centers.