Sunday, March 09, 2008

Google, Lenoir, NC, try to adpat to one another

Jen Aronoff
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Internet search giant also building near Goose Creek
The first phase of Google's data center in the North Carolina foothills city of Lenoir is nearing completion. The Internet search giant is is building a similar $600 million data center outside Charleston.

Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer

The first phase of Google's data center in the North Carolina foothills city of Lenoir is nearing completion. The Internet search giant is is building a similar $600 million data center outside Charleston.

As Google builds a $600 million data center complex in the N.C. foothills city of Lenoir, high tech is meeting small town. The globally ambitious, California-based Internet giant is working to establish itself in a close-knit world that’s decidedly un-Silicon Valley, mixing with local civic groups and donating charity Christmas trees for a public display, amid strict secrecy the company says its project requires.

At the same time, a community still reeling from an exodus of manufacturing jobs, and accustomed to homegrown furniture companies’ deep local involvement and philanthropic largesse, is greeting the tightly veiled data center with a mix of excitement and intense curiosity.

Lenoir native Stephen Clay, 57, is so pleased about Google’s arrival that he hung a “Clay Insurance Welcomes Google” banner outside his business near downtown. He also attended a Google AdWords training seminar to learn about how its advertising works.

But he and others said they still wish they knew more about the center and how it will benefit the community. Visitors aren’t allowed on the construction site, which is ringed with barbed wire.

Residents who have tried to sneak a closer peek say they’ve been run off by security guards. And employees are limited in what they can say about the project’s specifics.

“People talk about it all the time,” said Anita Watters, 40, the assistant manager of Miller Hill Grocery, just up the street from the data center. “‘Area 51.’ It’s all this secretive stuff. They’re so hush-hush about what they’re doing over there ... I hear all kinds of (speculation).”

The growing demand for Internet functions and Web-based storage and applications has tech giants such as Google and Microsoft racing to build data centers — large, climate-controlled computer warehouses — capable of processing search requests and storing vast amounts of information.

The centers, also known as server farms, require ample land, power and water, and companies closely guard information that could provide clues as to how, and how efficiently, they operate, in an effort to gain competitive advantage.

The Lenoir project sparked criticism after it was announced last year, in part because it received state and local incentives valued at up to $165 million over 30 years.

As a result, Google has worked to improve its outreach. In April, it hired consultant Matt Dunne, a former Vermont state senator and gubernatorial candidate whose career has focused on bringing together entrepreneurship, community service and politics, to listen to residents and inform them about the company.

Yet he must also manage expectations and explain the competitive reasons data centers are built and operated in secrecy.

In Lenoir, Dunne said, he’s encountered a mix of hope and concern: Hope that Google will single-handedly transform the economy and worries that the company won’t hire any local workers; excitement about a second building phase and concern that Google employees won’t live in or near Lenoir.

Google is not going to be another Broyhill or Bernhardt — furniture companies that for decades were dominant and paternalistic employers in the region — nor is it moving its headquarters to town. Though large, the data center will employ about 200 people, not 8,000, Dunne said.

“There’s not going to be a Googleplex anywhere near Lenoir,” said Tom Jacobik, Google’s Carolinas operations manager. “We’re not here to save the town. We’re here to run a business.”

At the 220-acre Google site, past, present and future coexist. More than 300 construction workers, many from local contractors, have transformed a hill into more of a mountain, moving vast quantities of earth.The surrounding neighborhood, meanwhile, looks much as it did before, with a mix of modest homes and largely shuttered furniture factories. The Blue Ridge Mountains and snowcapped top of Grandfather Mountain loom in the distance.

The first data center has risen at the base of the hill, along N.C. 18, with large cooling units at the side. It’s on track to begin limited testing this spring and should be fully up and running by the end of the year, Dunne said.

Google is also excavating the pad for the second building, which is expected to begin operating in 2009, Dunne said.

Google declined to say how large the data centers will be, but permits on file with Caldwell County call for one $15.4 million, 139,797-square-foot building and another, $24.5 million, 337,008-square-foot building.

Those permits, incidentally, are not listed under Google, but under the name Lapis LLC. Ask to make a copy, and you’ll be told it needs to be cleared by a lawyer first.

When completed, the buildings will resemble large, clean warehouses filled with cabling, cooling pipes and racks of servers.

In addition to equipment, Google has also brought new people — and its own culture — to town.

The company’s Lenoir offices will look “good and Googly,” Dunne said, with beanbag chairs, lava lamps and a massage chair. A foosball table is already in use in the temporary trailers behind the first data center building.

Employees will also receive free food, incentives to buy hybrid cars and to buy homes in Lenoir, and either an onsite gym or subsidized gym membership.

The Lenoir staff is a mix of transfers and new hires skilled at hardware maintenance, the Linux operating system, and cooling and electrical work. Though Google declined to say how many permanent employees are now on the job, it expects to eventually employ about 210 people.

The company has hired qualified locals, though it declined to say how many — and has inspired others to improve their technology training, too.

“I just wanted to be a part of (Google), a part of the culture,” said Jennifer Crump, 35, of Morganton, a former stay-at-home mom who earned an associate’s degree in information technology and was hired earlier this month as a data center technician assistant. “It’s so different from what we have around here.”

Lenoir native Walter Brameld, 30, worked in an Atlanta data center but got burned out and moved home, figuring he’d have to take “a McJob.” Then he found out about Google. Once the site location became public, he’d drive past it to reassure himself it was really coming. He was hired in October.

Working at Google is a source of great interest in the community, which can be difficult because the company is serious about confidentiality, employees said. “Normally what I tell people is that I play pingpong and eat food all day,” Brameld joked.

As a big-name newcomer, Google will encounter heightened expectations and scrutiny in Lenoir, as would other companies expanding in new regions, said Bennet Zelner, an assistant professor of strategy at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Demonstrating a commitment to being part of the community, he noted, will eliminate barriers and help the company’s reputation.

In Lenoir, Google established an informational Web site about the data center and e-mailed area natives with an IT background who had moved away to see if they’d have interest in returning.

It worked with the local community college to shape the curriculum of its new Information Technology Institute, which trains people for entry-level data center jobs. It staffed a booth at a local business expo last fall that turned out to be the most popular in the building, said Alan Wood of the Caldwell Economic Development Commission.

Jacobik, 42, an Air Force veteran and father of seven who previously managed a data center for Oracle in Austin, Texas, oversees Google’s Lenoir operation and another planned outside of Charleston near Goose Creek. In and around Lenoir alone, he has addressed more than a dozen civic groups, including Rotary, Kiwanis and Ruritan clubs.

“If you rate our speakers on a one to 10 as far as how excited we got about it, it was probably a 10,” said Lorene Reece, who was president of the Happy Valley Ruritan club when Jacobik visited last year. “This was something we were really curious about, and he filled that need.”

At one meeting, Jacobik said, a man approached him and asked what a “query” was. He’s met people who haven’t used computers before, which never happened in Austin.

But then, he likes how Lenoir is different. People come up to him as he’s headed to breakfast, politely asking how things are going. He takes his kids to events downtown and visits small, locally owned businesses. Even the setting reminds him of his hometown in the foothills of upstate New York.

He knows hopes are high. And even if Google isn’t in a position to save Lenoir, he’s aiming for it to provide something else worthwhile. “We’re giving people a reason to be proud in their community again,” he said, “and it’s been great to see that.”

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