Storing precious data

The Baltimore Sun

There are about 30 million reasons that Chris Fisher and the career protection company he works for justified renting computer data storage space in a Baltimore warehouse recently.

That's roughly the number of records that OnGuard Direct tracks from licensed professionals, such as doctors and nurses. So when OnGuard outgrew its in-house data facility, Fisher, a vice president with the company, looked to Northern Virginia for space given the region's reputation for technology.

Unfortunately for him, so did many other customers.

"It was hard to find and what was available was definitely more expensive," Fisher said.

His Columbia-based company began shopping elsewhere to outsource its data storage and other computer services, settling on a spot closer to home in Baltimore. Just a handful of Baltimore companies offer data storage, but some are expanding as customers look beyond Northern Virginia for such services.

Data centers are gaining in popularity as more companies look to outsource their computer needs from e-mail to Web hosting. For a fee, companies store their data and other computer services needs in secure, air-conditioned space that provides adequate backup power and network connections. The data is accessible to the companies both on site and through Internet and network connections.

Government requirements and consumer expectations that companies better protect the electronic data they collect is prompting more businesses to store the information in these kinds of facilities.

Data center demand in the Washington region, which includes Baltimore, grew nearly 22.5 percent during the past five years, but supply has grown just 5.6 percent, according to data from Tier1 Research. National demand climbed about 14.7 percent with supply increasing 6.5 percent during the same time frame.

Baltimore Technology Park, a 30,000-square-foot data center, opened in 2006 because market research showed there was demand in the area, executives said. Its Russell Street location in Southwest Baltimore also provided the company with tax incentives because it is in an enterprise zone.

Technology Park has signed 10 to 15 clients during the past six months, including OnGuard, said Kent Streeb, a company spokesman. Most of its 20 clients require large amounts of data space, and the company expects to sign more large customers soon. BTP spent nearly $7 million on its building and has a $3.5 million to $4 million expansion planned.

"If we sold space to half the people we're talking to today, we'd be sold out, and we just opened this space," said BTP President James Weller.

The company houses data rooms dominated by rows of black metal cabinets, which protect some companies' most precious data. To access the rooms, customers pass through a gated perimeter and several locked doors. They are monitored by 24 security cameras.

DataPoint Inc., a data center and Internet service provider, spent $1 million on a data center expansion last month at its Hull Street location in Locust Point.

DataPoint has about 2,000 customers in the Baltimore area. It opened as Toadnet in 1984 and switched names in 2005. Unlike Baltimore Technology Park, which solely offers data space, DataPoint also provides ISP services that can link multiple offices to the Internet and to each other.

Northern Virginia traditionally commanded the area's data center market, serving the numerous technology companies in the region. But a space crunch has created an opportunity in Baltimore, some technology analysts say.

"It's a creative place to put a data center where they're going to have a slightly lower cost basis," said Dan Golding, vice president of Tier1 Research. "The overflow from the Northern Virginia area is so extreme that they're not going to have any problems filling up their space."

CTSNet, a company that stores profiles on more than 40,000 surgeons and 50 Web sites, moved to DataPoint about six months ago. The company had stored its data in Virginia but moved for better pricing, customer service and accessibility, said Robert Oberteuffer, who works in the Baltimore office and is the chief architect. The company also has offices in St. Louis.

"We can ... just go out and visit and work on the machines," he said. "That kind of trip would have not even been considered before, you know - having to drive out to Vienna or Sterling" in Virginia.

After the dot-com bust in 2000-2001, data centers were sold at reduced prices, making companies wary of jumping back into the business, said Curtis DePass, general manager for DataPoint. But in recent years, technology giants such as Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. invested billions to build data centers across the country. And more companies kept collecting electronic data that needed to be managed and protected.

"Today, we find that almost every business outfit has some form of critical data they need to protect," said Weller, of BTP.

Plenty of that data has government-imposed security regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission or legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Sarbanes-Oxley. As the technology to protect this information advances, so do the power and cooling requirements that many companies can't match.

"All of a sudden their little closet is overheated," said DePass, of DataPoint. "Their server's locking up because they don't have the correct infrastructure to handle the newer technology."

Between adding fans to cool equipment and investing in generators in case of power outages, an in-house data center can cost about $1,000 per square foot, Weller said.

Outsourcing the project can be cheaper. Baltimore Technology Park charges about $1,000 for one rack of storage per month and DataPoint charges about $1,150.

A rack is the industry term for a large cabinet, usually about 7 feet tall and 2 feet wide, that holds the servers or computers.

"Across the board, basically, people's data centers are hitting a wall and they need solutions," said Doug Webster, managing director of Signal Hill, an investment banking and research firm in Baltimore. "The collocation business has been exploding because it's a solution that takes care of things today."

While there are still relatively few data center offerings in Baltimore, that could change as others take note of existing business here, experts say.

"Is there room for 10 Baltimore Technology Parks here? Probably not, but there's certainly room for a few," Webster said.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad