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On a July night 16 years ago, a fire started by transients under the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis burned cables and severed the Twin Cities' main connection to the Internet. In those days, there was no backup plan.
Some experts say the Twin Cities runs a similar risk today. The vast majority of the metro area's public Internet traffic runs through the 511 Building (at 511 11th Av. S., across the street from the Metrodome), on its way to Chicago, a major Internet intersection for routing data around the country.
But the builders of a new "Connexion" data center in Eagan are promoting it as an alternative 511 Building for the Twin Cities, one that would use a backup route to the Internet via Kansas City, and, in the longer run, other cities.
Some say the Eagan data center could make a big difference for Twin Cities Internet customers.
"Today, if a company can't afford private circuits to other cities, they have to go through the 511 Building's route to Chicago," said Rick King, chief operating officer for technology for Thomson Reuters, a worldwide information publishing company with major operations in Eagan that's been an advocate for the new data center. The time is ripe to change that dependence on the 511 Building, he said. "The cost to do a backup Internet route has dropped tenfold since the middle-1990s. Redundancy is more affordable now."
Basant Kharbanda, CEO of privately owned Timeshare Systems Inc., which runs the 511 Building, said he has no objection to a data center in Eagan providing Internet connections in competition with the 511 Building. But he objects to the city of Eagan spending $185,000 on a feasibility study for the multimillion-dollar project because it represents a government subsidy.
Asked whether most Twin Cities Internet traffic flows through the 511 Building, Kharbanda said, "I have no idea."
The planned Eagan data center would operate under a "carrier-neutral" policy which, in theory, should provide data center customers with more choices of telephone companies to reach the Internet (carriers), more alternate routes to the Internet and more competitive prices. Some other data centers in the Twin Cities also are carrier-neutral, but they are smaller than the planned Eagan center.
As a result, the ultimate success of the Eagan data center will hinge on whether the long-distance companies think it will generate enough business to justify connecting to it. So far, only one carrier, XO Communications, has committed to connect.
"It took 15 years for the 511 Building to grow to be this important," said Bradley Urberg Carlson, network architect for Eden Prairie-based Visi, a competing data center owned by TDS Telecom of Madison, Wis. "If the carriers choose to use the facility in Eagan, it could grow to be that important in time. But so could a different location." Visi also offers multiple carriers and alternate routes to the Internet.
If the plan works, the new data center could be a big economic benefit for Eagan and Minnesota, said Doug Hollidge, CEO of Five 9s Digital, a Charlotte, N.C., development and advisory firm working on the Eagan project.
That's because the data center's customer list could extend well beyond Minnesota borders. If the center can offer multiple routes to the Internet, that could encourage out-of-state corporations to backup data in Eagan, Hollidge said. Corporate backup sites are supposed to be far from the original data site, a safeguard against natural disasters.
Even competitors like that idea.
"Certainly the Eagan data center will help showcase Minnesota as a suitable backup location, and that serves all our interests," said Visi's Urberg Carlson.
Under current plans, the privately funded "no frills" Eagan data center (users will provide their own computers and backup power generators), would be completed next year on Yankee Doodle Road near Pilot Knob Road. Combined data center and customer equipment expenditures could total $75 million to $100 million. The exact cost of the data center portion hasn't been disclosed.
The city of Eagan has been an enthusiastic backer of the project, and its city council "deemed such a facility to be critical infrastructure for the city's future," said Tom Garrison, a city spokesman. The data center plan was developed by an informal government-private sector organization, the Eagan Technology Working Group; the city contributed only the $185,000 cost of the feasibility study, he said.
All this talk about a backup to the 511 Building strikes a chord with Tom Salonek, CEO of Eagan-based Intertech, a 65-employee software and technical training firm. He thinks the Twin Cities' heavy reliance on the 511 Building is a bad idea, and points to his own company's experience.
"Our company had a Internet attack this summer, and it brought down our computers and website," Salonek said. "At the time, we didn't have a backup. Until you get hit by an outage, it's hard to measure the impact it would have on your business."
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553