Northern Virginia: From ‘Star Wars’ to Cloud Wars

Editor’s note: Remember that SACRPH 2019, the organization’s 18th conference, is in Northern Virginia (NOVA or NoVa)  this October/November from October 31 – November 3. The deadline for the CFP, which you can view here, is March 15. With this in mind, we continue our focus on NoVa as our Metro of the Month.  Submit your panels everyone! 

By Tommy Shay Hill

To the extent that it enters the public eye at all, Northern Virginia appears to outsiders as a land of interstates, office parks, and civil war battlefields, where the frumpiness of Washington bureaucracy takes on southern baggage; a place epitomized by such landmarks as the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery, and where grey mid-century office blocks front onto highways named after Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Its urban form is summed up by Tysons Corner, made infamous in the 1990s by the urbanist Joel Garreau as the archetypal “Edge City”: less a functioning community than a cautionary tale of the excesses of late twentieth century auto-dependent exurbia.

Aerial view of Crystal City, Virginia
Aerial view of Crystal City, Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

It thus came as a surprise to some that Amazon would choose this place to bring 25,000 white collar jobs as part of its highly-publicized HQ2.[1] The company’s move to New York City seemed cliché; the move to Virginia, uninspiring. To those who live in the Washington area, Amazon’s chosen site straddling Arlington’s Crystal City and Alexandria’s Potomac Yards is a drab corporate landscape of aging office towers and big box stores. Like ‘Foggy Bottom’ five stops away on the Blue Line, ‘Crystal City’ is one of those place names that has become a joke among area residents. Simultaneously imposing and forgettable, the neighborhood’s slew of hulking concrete office towers – many of them carbon copies of one another – are exemplars of the monumental blandness of post-war Washington. Think Le Corbusier, but without the style.

Amazon’s arrival in Northern Virginia seems at odds with the mental image many outsiders have of the region’s major players: the Department of Defense, the security agencies, and the hundreds of independent contractors serving them – the back-of-house operations of the Deep State. And to a large degree this mental image is accurate: local developer Robert Smith built this collection of modernist-lite high rises in the 1960s and 1970s as cheap office space for government agencies and defense department staff.[2] It was in this otherwise unremarkable office cluster – and in a few others like it across the region – that Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program was waged. The region as a whole was effectively built by the Pentagon. Many of the largest structures in the area house Defense Department functions, and the housing tracts and high rises that dot the region can often be dated to some spurt of postwar defense spending.

Park Fairfax
Park Fairfax, built by MetLife in the early 1940s to house workers at the newly constructed Pentagon, photo by Thomas Hill

And yet, Amazon is no stranger to this world of intelligence and defense contracting. The company’s cloud computing subsidiary Amazon Web Services (AWS) has had a major presence in the region since 2006, and since 2013 has hosted all of the CIA’s web traffic in a purpose-built private cloud.[3] Follow Virginia Route 267 West past Tysons Corner out to Loudoun County and you’ll reach Ashburn, Virginia, where AWS operates 25 of the more than 70 data centers in this remote corner of the D.C. area.[4] This formerly agricultural community 45 minutes from Washington houses the world’s busiest intersection of fiber networks, making it the optimal point on the globe to store and exchange data.[5] In the open tracts and brownfields of this Northern Virginia exurb, an arms race is being fought once again: this one not for mastery of space, but for control of “the Cloud.”

Northern Virginia: The Internet’s Utility Closet

The region’s status as a tech hub has by now become banal to Northern Virginia natives. Parts of the region are so dense with underground fiber optic cables that a construction project in the area knocks one out from time to time, bringing down some portion of the web for a few hours and causing serious delays on the interstates radiating outwards from Washington.[6]

But the details always seem to shock out-of-towners. Loudoun County officials like to state that 70% of internet traffic in the world passes through data centers located here.[7] While it is difficult to evaluate this precise figure, Northern Virginia’s volume of data center space dwarfs the size of Silicon Valley, the next largest market.[8] The internet is a network of networks, and server farms in Loudoun County are the interface where those networks intersect. A huge portion of the internet’s many networks articulate with one another in the wires and servers of Northern Virginia’s dozens of faceless data centers.[9]

Military Modernism
Mark Center in Alexandria, headquarters of several DoD agencies, courtesy of U.S. Army

The history of the internet and the history of defense contracting are not as estranged as they might seem, and it is in the office parks, edge cities, and suburban downtowns of the Northern Virginia suburbs that these two stories cross. In his brilliant history of the region, Internet Alley, Paul E. Ceruzzi traces the origins of the internet to a series of Department of Defense contracts from the 1960s through the 1980s. These contracts went disproportionately to companies located in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs, cementing a network of connections that built such edge cities as Tysons Corner and which solidified the region’s status as the center of the internet before any personal computer even had a dial-up connection. Like all media, the internet relies on physical infrastructure; like all infrastructural systems, the internet’s backbone of server farms and fiber optic cables has grown in a highly path-dependent way. MAE-East, the server farm established in an Ashburn parking garage in 1992 to allow the world’s fledgling online companies to connect, remains at the hub of the world’s internet traffic today. AOL moved its corporate headquarters to Ashburn in the 1990s in order to minimize distance to MAE-East, and soon enough all internet service providers were running their cables to this one spot.[10] Today more than 200 networks converge in Ashburn, which has come to be known in industry circles as “Data Center Alley.”[11]

As much as consumers may grumble about Amazon’s monopoly over the world’s e-commerce, its control of global internet traffic is by no means secure: the company is in the midst of one of the fiercest commercial battles of our times – an ongoing war with Google, Microsoft, and Oracle for control of the Cloud. The war for this ethereal medium is being waged in Ashburn and surrounding communities, where these four players are scrambling to buy up available space for new data centers.[12] These exurbs are experiencing an extraordinary building boom in new data center space, one that is straining the capacity of the local utility company – Dominion Power – to sustain it.[13] The cost of land in this secluded jurisdiction at the outer edge of the northeast corridor has nearly tripled in just the last two years, reaching over $1 million per acre at the end of 2018.[14]

What is driving this exploding demand for data center space? Many recent digital phenomena have enhanced the need for data center capacity: the widespread adoption of cloud computing by companies and individuals; the pervasive streaming of content; the Internet of Things; the prospect of 5G; and the exponential increase in data generated by our most everyday objects and activities.[15] The journalist Rich Miller has carefully tracked the drivers and dynamics of the data center industry on his excellent blog Data Center Frontier, and points to the coming ‘data tsunami’ generated by ‘machine-to-machine’ (m2m) communication as a phenomenon that will sustain continuously growing demand for data center capacity over the coming years.[16] While these phenomena are sure to transform economies and social relations around the world, their effects are felt most acutely in a single local real estate market: Northern Virginia.

C.I.A. Headquarters aerial
Aerial of C.I.A. Headquarters in Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

NoVA’s Security-Driven Building Booms

This is not the first time an exogenous series of events has sparked a building boom in the area. There are distinct parallels between the current upswing and the frantic construction of defense contracting space in the years after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I have written elsewhere of the way in which the Defense Department’s massive increase in demand for space after 9/11 facilitated the growth of a new type of landlord in Northern Virginia – the Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) – capable of issuing shares on stock exchanges to fund new development.

The early 2000s saw this new generation of real estate company buy out and out-compete the local developers that built Crystal City and Tysons Corner in the 1960s and 1970s.[17] With access to the public capital markets, REITs proved uniquely capable of financing and developing the hyper-protected, state-of-the-art garrison-campuses effectively required by the Department of Defense’s post-9/11 security requirements. The years after 9/11 witnessed the rapid proliferation of a new type of structure across the Northern Virginia landscape: the SCIF, or “sensitive compartmented information facility.” High-security SCIFs can cost upwards of $300 a square foot to build, relative to the $30 per square foot standard of conventional office space, and thus are prohibitive for small- and mid-sized firms to provide.[18]

The REIT Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) cornered the market for high-security defense contractor space early on, increasing its tenant revenue from defense and intelligence from roughly a quarter of its total revenues in 2002 to nearly half by 2004.[19] By 2010, 36 of the 50 largest Defense contractors were COPT tenants, most of them with multiple leases in place.[20]

Long a player behind the scenes in the War on Terror, COPT has quietly assumed center stage in the war for the cloud, becoming Amazon Web Services’ primary data center provider in Loudoun County.[21] The REIT’s experience in providing high-security spaces commensurate with Defense Department standards translates well to the market for data center space, and gives Amazon a distinct advantage on a major front of the Cloud War.

Art made of “code” named Kryptos sits on the grounds of the C.I.A. Headquarters in Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Over the past year, the continuity between Northern Virginia’s War on Terror boom years and the current data center upswing have come into relief: rumors have been circulating over a controversial Department of Defense cloud contract known as “JEDI” (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure). To be awarded in April 2019, JEDI consists of a single award of almost unheard-of proportions: worth as much as $10 billion over a ten-year time frame, the grantee will be tasked with building out the military’s entire digital infrastructure needs.[22] While it is hard to draw any direct connections, Amazon’s choice of a site for its HQ2 less than a mile from the Pentagon has analysts wondering whether the chance of snagging the JEDI contract is what lured Amazon to the site in the first place: the company has significantly intensified its lobbying activities in recent years.[23] A new HQ site in Crystal City would only enhance Amazon’s changes of securing JEDI.[24]

As Ingrid Burrington observes in her recent effort to map AWS’s data centers in Loudoun County, the company’s data center fortresses are as inaccessible and uninviting as any Defense Department stronghold.[25] Alongside the mutely imposing office towers of Crystal City and the indestructible concrete blockiness of SCIFs, the current wave of data center construction has added a new item to the region’s menagerie of blandness. Calling these structures Kafkaesque would imply something too sinister—these buildings are the architecture of anonymity, of a Big Brother that wants to be ignored.

The Economy of Security: Limits to Growth?

And yet, evading attention is becoming increasingly difficult in this rapidly growing region. Northern Virginia’s spectacular series of building booms since the 1960s has left little remaining open space for the fenced-off server farms or high-security office parks that are the region’s lifeblood, casting into stark relief the contradictions of an agglomeration economy based on classified activity. For all its abundance – of government contracts, advanced degrees, computing power – the region is starting to face an acute shortage of space. Data center providers in Ashburn are considering building up, constructing 2- or even 3-story data centers to accommodate the apparently limitless demand.[26] The region’s once-deadly office clusters are being remade as 24/7 lifestyle destinations: the REIT JBG Smith is giving all of Crystal City a new urbanist makeover. The moniker ‘edge city’ is hardly relevant anymore for Tysons Corner. In 2014, the district was sutured to the wider region by an extension of the D.C. Metro’s Silver Line, and much of the surrounding open space has long since filled in with new office buildings, shopping destinations, and residential high-rises. The housing market has felt a serious squeeze, with jurisdictions losing up to 90% of their affordable market-rate housing since 2000.[27]

But beyond its impact on the immediate region, the explosive growth of the IT industry in Northern Virginia points to an uncomfortable reality: the tech economy is highly geographically uneven, an unevenness explained as much by massive government contracts and pre-existing infrastructure as on individual cities’ abilities to lure the “creative class.” For all the talk of the internet’s flattening of space, the umbilical cord linking the digital economy to the military-industrial complex has yet to be cut, and the steady proliferation of social media, digitally-enabled devices, streaming, and cloud computing continues to pay dividends to the place where the internet was born over a generation ago. The cards were already stacked against the other 18 cities on Amazon’s shortlist for HQ2. Amazon’s announcement in November confirmed what many in the region already knew: Northern Virginia is ground zero in the war for the Cloud.

Editor’s note: Remember that SACRPH 2019, the organization’s 18th conference, is in NoVA this October/November from October 31 – November 3, the deadline for the CFP, which you can view here, is March 15, submit your panels everyone! 

Photo_TSHTommy Shay Hill is an urbanist, historian and data scientist currently pursuing a PhD in urban planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Tommy’s work is at the intersection of urban planning, critical geography, economic history, and computer science. Tommy’s dissertation research focuses on the challenges of developing a quantitative science of cities. Tommy is in the early stages of an empirical project to “spatialize” property development cycles through American history: to map the spatial evolution of American metropolitan regions since the Second World War through cycles of boom and bust.

Featured image (at top): Statue to William Donovan, director of the C.I.A predecessor agency, and a marker to the C.I.A’s fallen at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, Langley, Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Jonathan O’Connell and Robert McCartney. “Amazon HQ2 Decision: Amazon Splits Prize between Crystal City and New York.” The Washington Post. November 13, 2018.

[2] Shapiro, Matt Schudel and T. Rees. “Robert Smith, 81, Dies; Created Arlington’s Crystal City.” The Washington Post. December 31, 2009.

[3] Konkel, By Frank. “Sources: Amazon and CIA Ink Cloud Deal .” FCW. March 13, 2018. Accessed January 11, 2019.

[4] “A Gigawatt and Growing: Data Center Industry Pushing Toward Greener Energy.” Loudoun Now (blog), December 6, 2018.

[5] Miller, Rich. “Northern Virginia Data Center Market Extends Leadership Position.” Data Center Frontier Special Report. 2018.

[6] Amy Gardner. “The One Fiber Optic Cable No One on the Dig for Tysons Corner Wants to Hit.” The Washington Post. May 31, 2009.

[7] Freed, Benjamin. “70 Percent of the World’s Web Traffic Flows Through Loudoun County.” The Washingtonian. September 14, 2016.

[8] Data Center Frontier. “Silicon Valley Data Center Market.” Data Center Frontier Special Report. 2018.

[9] Blum, Andrew. “The Bullseye of America’s Internet.” Gizmodo. Accessed January 10, 2019.

[10] Kanowitz, Stephanie. “How Data Centers Power Virginia’s Loudoun County.” GCN. Accessed January 9, 2019.

[11] Miller, Rich. “Northern Virginia Data Center Market Extends Leadership Position.” Data Center Frontier Special Report. 2018.

[12] Miller, Rich. “Northern Virginia Data Center Demand: Home of the Data Center Hyperscalers.” Data Center Frontier (blog), November 26, 2018.

[13] “A Gigawatt and Growing: Data Center Industry Pushing Toward Greener Energy.” Loudoun Now (blog), December 6, 2018.

[14] Stoller, Bill. “Northern Virginia’s Already Tight Real Estate Market Just Got a Lot Tighter.” Data Center Knowledge (blog), October 1, 2018.

[15] Stoller, Bill. “Equinix Heats Up Data Center Alley’s Landgrab Rush.” Data Center Knowledge (blog), February 27, 2017.

[16] Miller, Rich. “Data Tonnage: Managing the Coming M2M Tsunami.” Data Center Frontier (blog), November 28, 2018.

[17] Ceruzzi, Paul E. Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008., pp. 126-134

[18] Dennis J. Lane of Ryan Commercial Real Estate Services, quoted in “U.S. government snaps up secure offices,” by David Dishneau, Associated Press. April 3, 2005.

[19] Corporate Office Properties Trust. Q4 2004 Corporate Office Properties Trust Earnings Conference Call.

[20] Corporate Office Properties Trust. Corporate Office Properties Trust 2010 Annual Report. p. 17

[21] Miller, Rich. “Amazon Plans Epic Data Center Expansion in Northern Virginia.” Data Center Frontier (blog), November 6, 2017.

[22] Moss, Sebastian. “Amazon in Advanced Talks to Bring HQ2 to Northern Virginia.” Data Center Dynamics (blog). Accessed January 7, 2019.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Reklaitis, Victor. “HQ2 in the D.C. Area Could Help Amazon Snag a $10 Billion Pentagon Contract.” MarketWatch (blog). Accessed January 7, 2019.

[25] Burrington, Ingrid. “Why Amazon’s Data Centers Are Hidden in Spy Country.” The Atlantic, January 8, 2016.

[26] Stoller, Bill. “Equinix Heats Up Data Center Alley’s Landgrab Rush.” Data Center Knowledge (blog), February 27, 2017.

[27] Whitehead, David. “Alexandria Has Lost 90% of Its Affordable Homes since 2000.” Accessed January 11, 2019.

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