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70 Percent of the World’s Web Traffic Flows Through Loudoun County

Over the past two decades, server farms have devoured the farmland of Loudoun County—so much that vast portions of our online lives are now transacted via their fiber and cables.
An Amazon data center in Ashburn, photographed in July. According to a Loudoun official, the company is the largest server-farm tenant in the county, operating 26 facilities. Photograph by Evy Mages.

Get off the Dulles Toll Road and you can’t miss them—low-lying gray hulks sprawling across the rolling green landscape. An estimated 70 percent of the world’s web traffic—streaming video, financial transactions, NSFW activities—flows through the colorful insides of these windowless buildings. Welcome to Data Center Alley, the backbone of the online world, right here in DC’s back yard.

Loudoun County has played a critical role in our digital lives since AOL and other early internet firms set up shop in the 1990s. Because of the fiber-optic cable infrastructure that those companies helped lay—and a 20-percent-below-average electricity rate—it became the place to put up a data center. Today more than 60 facilities cover 10 million square feet of the county; another 3.5 million square feet are going up. Since 2008, says Loudoun business-development chief Buddy Rizer, there hasn’t been a single day without construction on one.

For Loudoun, there’s a clear financial benefit: $110 million in annual tax revenue. But as the formerly rural exurb’s population has boomed, server farms are increasingly bumping up against homeowners who resent the views (not to mention the perpetual hum of air conditioners and generators).

Now one official wants to give tax incentives to facilities that make their buildings more attractive. “There’s 21st-century technology in those buildings,” says Board of Supervisors member Ron Meyer. “Let’s make sure we have 21st-century design.”

But even if the external aesthetics change over the next few years—the alley runs along the Silver Line corridor—most Washingtonians will never lay eyes on the activity inside.

Graphic by Jason Lancaster.
Graphic by Jason Lancaster. Photographs by Evy Mages.

This article appears in our September 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.