Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Wally Czerniak
Wally Czerniak

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News Release

Contact; Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-4299

October 29, 2007

NIU-Net paves way for DeKalb data center boom

DeKalb, Ill. — While DeKalb has long been famous for things such as corn and barbed wire, Northern Illinois University’s NIU-Net has put the region on the map in a new way that could pay big dividends to the local economy.

The high-speed fiber optic network has made DeKalb one of the most fiber-accessible cities in the state. That, combined with other factors such as low land prices, a highly educated work force and geographic location, make DeKalb a highly attractive destination for companies looking to build new data centers, or server farms, as they are sometimes known. The facilities are typically large buildings that house a huge number of computer servers to store data for banks, insurance companies and all manner of businesses.

“It used to be that we boasted about grain storage; now digital data storage is a hot commodity,” said Roger Hopkins, executive director of the DeKalb County Development Corp.

Dan Halverson, president of DeKalb Fiber Optics, which has partnered with NIU to create a local fiber optic network in DeKalb and beyond, said DeKalb has a right to brag about the network and its potential to attract business.

“With what we have in place, we’ve got everything a business could be looking for, at prices that are drastically lower than what they are used to paying,” Halverson said.

Data centers traditionally have been located in urban areas near, or in, the buildings that house the companies they serve.

However, the advent of high-speed fiber optic networks such NIU-Net and other commercial equivalent networks means that data can be shipped cross country almost as quickly as it can be moved between floors. Consequently, businesses are looking to locate their data centers (usually backup systems, but sometimes also primary systems) to areas where land is cheaper than in urban settings. Also driving that move are fears over potential terrorist attacks on urban centers as well as worries about natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes in some areas.

Such concerns are heating up the market for new facilities.

“Data center projects are the fastest-growing field in corporate site location,” said John Boyd, president of the Boyd Company (which specializes in advising large companies on where to locate facilities) in a January 2007 interview in the online industry publication Data Center Knowledge.

Much of that growth, Boyd said, will take place in the Midwest.

Earlier this year, his company released a list of the 20 most affordable places to locate a data center. At the top was Sioux Falls, S.D., and the top 10 included other heartland outposts such as Des Moines, Iowa; Ames, Iowa; and Indianapolis.

Towns covet the facilities because data centers generate a substantial number of construction jobs and create well-paying jobs for people in fields such as management, information technology, electrical engineering and technologies. NIU has strong programs in all of those areas, Hopkins said. The facilities also generate substantial property taxes when they are up and running, he added.

Drawing those facilities here might have just become a little easier thanks to DeKalb’s inclusion on a map produced by Educause, which depicts higher education broadband networks around the country. The map highlights DeKalb’s status as home to NIU-Net.

While Educause printed the map to demonstrate how relatively scarce such networks are, it sends a different message to companies looking for potential data center locations.

“Our presence on the Educause map demonstrates that we are among the elite in the state – in fact, the Midwest – when it comes to availability of high speed fiber,” said Wally Czerniak, NIU’s associate vice president for Information Technology Services. “It also signals to interested companies that, if they locate here, they will have access to a highly educated work force by tapping into graduates from NIU’s programs in computer science, information technology and electrical engineering.

“Being on that map also speaks volumes about the fiber capacity available here,” added Czerniak, who has worked to make the creation of NIU-Net a public-private partnership.

“By working with companies like DeKalb Fiber Optic, the university was able to minimize costs,” he said. “It also allowed for the creation of a network that not only serves the needs of higher education, but also allowed for the installation of vast amounts of commercial fiber that is becoming a hot commodity.”

As work on the NIU-Net loop (originally created to link the DeKalb campus with its centers in Rockford, Hoffman Estates and Naperville) nears completion, Hopkins has been ramping up his efforts to begin attracting data centers. The viability of attracting data centers to the region has already has been demonstrated in Rochelle, which recently lured an Allstate Insurance server farm

Such success is encouraging, Hopkins said.

“This is definitely an industry we want to attract,” he said, “and we have the infrastructure to do it.”

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